Thirty-one NHL teams know New York Islanders center John Tavares is an elite player. Any team interested in his services is going to have to answer the same question posed by Larry Brooks for Isles management: “what is the organization’s selling point?”
We know John Tavares makes sense for the San Jose Sharks because he makes sense for every team. But does San Jose make sense for John Tavares?
As of now, Tavares is on the trade market, sort of. He is under contract to the Isles for the upcoming season, after which he can become a free agent. The most likely outcome is Tavares signs a long-term deal with his current team before he becomes a free agent June 30, 2018. But this is hardly a given. One thing is a given: Tavares will have a long-term deal, somewhere, which begins with the 2018-19 season.
Tavares has reason to leave the Islanders. There are roster issues, competitive issues, and venue issues. For Isles general manager Garth Snow, there is every reason to keep Tavares. However, it’d be a disaster for the Isles if Tavares left in a year and Snow got nothing for him.
If the odds were good Tavares would re-sign with the Isles, it’s fair to say he’d probably have re-signed by now. If the odds are low, the Isles would be wise to trade Tavares to another team. At the point where a trade makes sense, Snow’s job simplifies to this: acquire the maximum assets he can in a trade. If all else is equal, send him to the Western Conference, where he’d only play occasionally against the Isles. General managers aren’t fond of traded players coming back to haunt them.
The maximum trade value for Tavares will come sooner than later, because having Tavares for longer makes him more valuable to the acquiring team. The acquiring team’s ability to re-sign Tavares is a major consideration. A team will trade more assets for a long-term acquisition than it will for a one-year rental. But signing Tavares to a long-term deal requires a lot of salary cap space. Several teams, including many of the league’s better teams, do not have salary cap space sufficient to re-sign Tavares – at least not without going through major roster gyrations.
These considerations create practical constraints on where Tavares might go in a trade.
The ability of a team to sign Tavares to a long-term deal holds tremendous sway. If the Isles trade Tavares to a place he wants to go – a place he’ll sign a long-term deal – the Isles will get a much larger return. Since maximizing the return is what the Isles must do, it logically follows that Tavares has a major say in where he gets traded.
A lot revolves around the simple question: what does Tavares want?
The Ante for Tavares
Most NHL teams have a nice place to play, a respectable team, a good fan base and so forth. The ones which don’t have this, however, are not in contention for Tavares.
In his eight NHL seasons, Tavares has only seen the playoffs three times and has only been on the winning side of a handshake line once. Assuming a Stanley Cup is a priority, he’ll want to go to a competitive team. The teams competing for Tavares must also have the salary cap space to sign a long-term deal for a top-five NHL salary.
Yet all this is merely the ante – the chance to make a serious play for Tavares. Perhaps a dozen teams, San Jose included, have the ante covered. But acquiring and retaining him are the goals. And since Tavares will have a major say in where he plays, a big consideration is whether he will want San Jose.
Why Tavares Wants San Jose
The Sharks would be a Stanley Cup contender with Tavares. The supporting cast is terrific; a top center is the only missing piece. Almost all the key players from the Sharks team which went to the Stanley Cup Final are in place, with Tavares taking the top center role from an aging Joe Thornton. With Tavares, the Sharks have a better roster than the one which went to the Cup Final.
Similarly, the Sharks are very likely to be in the playoffs, even if they have some hiccups along the way. The team is good, but it doesn’t hurt playing in one of the NHL’s weaker divisions.
In the Metropolitan Division where Tavares currently resides, four teams exceeded 100 points last season and the Isles finished fifth with 94 points, out of the playoffs. There is very little room for error. In the Pacific, 94 points was good enough for fourth place and a playoff spot.
The Pacific Division has only two strong teams (Anaheim and Edmonton), three competitive teams (San Jose, Calgary, and Los Angeles) and three teams trying to become competitive (Vancouver, Vegas and Arizona).
You can’t win a Stanley Cup if you don’t make the playoffs. As competitive as the NHL is, very few teams are a lock for a postseason spot. San Jose, with Tavares, is one of those teams.
For the Sharks, facts help their cause. The Sharks have retained all their major players for very long periods of time.,Thornton, Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Joe Pavelski all have over a decade in teal. Brent Burns has six years and signed up for another eight.
Some might see Patrick Marleau’s recent departure as a counterpoint, but his career in San Jose says otherwise. In league history, only six players played more games for one franchise than Marleau did with San Jose. He signed six contracts with the Sharks. In leaving, Marleau took the richest offer (by a lot) ever accorded a 38-year-old NHL player. This wasn’t a disgruntled player leaving in a huff. Marleau left for an unprecedented offer; one he couldn’t reasonably refuse.
The Sharks’ recent re-signing of Vlasic drives home the essential point. An elite defenseman, Vlasic was a teammate of Tavares on Team Canada’s 2014 Olympic gold medal-winning squad. The window for the Isles to extend Tavares and for the Sharks to extend Vlasic began on the same day, July 1, 2017.
Absent a new contract, both Vlasic and Tavares could have become free agents on July 1, 2018. Vlasic won’t see free agency. On the first day he was eligible to do so, Vlasic re-signed with the Sharks.
After 11 years with San Jose, Vlasic didn’t hesitate to sign up for a bunch more. He knew he wanted to play in San Jose.
Wanting to Stay
Vlasic isn’t alone in wanting to stay with San Jose. Players who have signed multiple deals with the Sharks include Thornton, Burns, Pavelski and Logan Couture. These players would have a ton of options had they gone to free agency. They all wanted to stay in San Jose and they all did.
This doesn’t happen by accident.
To take it a step further, several former Sharks players have returned to San Jose after their playing days ended. Evgeni Nabakov, who left in the latter part of his career, returned to San Jose and works for the Sharks organization. So does Mike Ricci. And former star players who aren’t part of the Sharks organization, including Dan Boyle and Owen Nolan, have made the San Jose area their home.
Boyle, Nolan, Nabakov, Ricci, Thornton, Marleau, Burns, Couture, Pavelski and Vlasic. Does Tavares want the same sorts of things as these fine players? Almost certainly.
San Jose can sell both the organization and the environment. It seems trite to say “good players want to play for the Sharks.” The Sharks have a mountain of evidence to back it up.
The Marquee Factor
All the reasons mentioned are important, but one reason jumps to the top. The NHL has a new marquee player. At age 20, he’s won the Hart Trophy, the Art Ross Trophy and the Ted Lindsay Award. You’ve heard of Connor McDavid. Only Sidney Crosby is comparable, and let’s face it, McDavid is more fun to watch. He is the most dynamic player in the league.
There are two ways to ensure yourself a place in the spotlight in the decade ahead. Be a teammate of McDavid with the Edmonton Oilers, or be their main rival.
Only Pacific Division teams play Edmonton five times a year. The matchup of Tavares versus McDavid, exciting on its own merits, will be positively drool-worthy if both teams are good. If Tavares comes to San Jose, both teams will be really good.
This will rival the Ovechkin-Crosby duel as the league’s most intriguing and intense matchup. Every division has tough teams and a challenging path to go deep in the playoffs, but only a few rivalries dominate the media. If it is Tavares versus McDavid with supporting cast members such as Leon Draisaitl and Brent Burns, it is must-see TV.
The Total Package
The San Jose Sharks are the only team that is highly competitive, in the same division as the league’s marquee player and with salary cap space to sign Tavares to a long-term deal. He is a really good fit for the Sharks, who have a well-earned positive reputation with top-tier players.
The Sharks have several strong selling points, giving John Tavares excellent reasons to find his way to San Jose.
ZEKE is a native of the DC area where he witnessed the birth of the Capitals franchise. After graduating from Cornell University, which had seen hockey glory before he arrived, he moved west to San Jose. There he witnessed the birth of the Sharks franchise. His wait to witness a Championship from any of these teams finally ended in 2018.