What if John Tavares Re-Signed With the Islanders

It is July 1st, 2018, and you hear the news: John Tavares is a Toronto Maple Leaf. This day is monumental for both Leafs and New York Islanders fans but for vastly different reasons. Tavares joins the young core of his childhood team, aiming to bring home a Stanley Cup. Meanwhile, the Islanders lose their franchise player, former first overall pick, and captain. But in an alternate reality, Tavares decides to remain on Long Island. How does this change the Islanders’ future trajectory?

It also must be stated there is no way of knowing what would have happened. This is an attempt at predicting one of the infinite possibilities in this alternate reality, so all predictions must be taken with a grain of salt.

2018 Offseason Changes

Before Tavares‘ departure, the Islanders brought in Lou Lamoriello as general manager and Barry Trotz as head coach in hopes of convincing Tavares to stay. Despite this, Tavares met with six teams following the 2018 Draft without making a decision, so the Islanders’ mindset at that time remained the same. They still select Oliver Wahlstrom and Noah Dobson back to back in the first round.

Following Tavares’ free agent meetings, he successfully negotiates with Lamoriello, resulting in an eight-year contract valued at $12.5 million per year, complete with a full no-trade clause. This new deal surpasses his current seven-year, $77 million contract (with an $11 million annual average) by $1.5 million per year and $23 million overall.

From this point, the Islanders still needed to add another top-six forward and a goaltender. While Robin Lehner’s signing addressed the team’s goaltending needs, and likely still occurs, Lamoriello would have targeted a top free agent winger. This list includes players like Rick Nash, James van Riemsdyk, David Perron, and Tyler Bozak. However, due to their limited remaining cap space, no deal is finalized.

Related: Islanders & Maple Leafs Should Swap Wahlstrom & Robertson

Considering that list of players, along with the entire 2018 free agency class, the Islanders would never have found the star winger they initially sought to play alongside Tavares. Although an acquisition could have been made by trading one or both of the team’s 2018 first-round picks, it would have been unlikely given the team’s already high-salary roster. Some potential trade targets could have been Max Pacioretty or Ryan O’Reilly, but those deals never get done. The roster remains very similar to what it ended up being with the only major change being the addition of Tavares.

Is the 2018-19 Season Different?

After Tavares’s departure, the Islanders posted a 48-27-7 record, securing second place in the Metropolitan Division. This unexpected regular season success surprised many hockey fans and was largely attributed to the strong team bond fostered by the fanbase’s solidarity following Tavares’s exit. They swept the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round but were then swept by the Carolina Hurricanes in the second round.

Had Tavares stayed with the Islanders, they might have won a few more games, possibly enough to surpass the Washington Capitals for the top spot in the division for the regular season standings. Although, that would not have mattered much since they would have faced the Hurricanes in Round 1 instead of Round 2, with a similar result likely occurring.

The Islanders lost Games 1 and 2 against the Hurricanes by just one goal, suggesting that Tavares could have made a difference in those close matches. However, they were defeated by three goals in both Games 3 and 4, and that shift in momentum likely would have influenced the final games of the series as well.

John Tavares Toronto Maple Leafs
John Tavares of the Toronto Maple Leafs after the loss against the Boston Bruins in Game Seven of the First Round of the 2024 Stanley Cup Playoffs (Photo by Steve Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images)

Even if the Islanders had miraculously found a way to beat the Hurricanes and advance to the Eastern Conference Final, they stood no chance against the Boston Bruins. The Bruins not only swept the Hurricanes in Round 3, outscoring them 17-5 in the four-game series, but the Islanders struggled against the Bruins during the 2018-19 regular season. They lost all three regular-season matchups, getting outscored 10-2.

2019 and Beyond

Of course, the Islanders proceeded to go on two deep playoff runs in 2020 and 2021, but those runs would have been vastly different if Tavares had stayed. The Islanders would not have been able to trade for Jean-Gabriel Pageau or Kyle Palmieri at the 2020 or 2021 Trade Deadlines due to minimal cap space.

In Pageau’s two deep runs with the Islanders, he had 11 goals and 24 points in 41 games. In the deep 2021 playoff run, Palmieri had seven goals in 19 games. There is no world in which the Islanders would have been able to acquire either scorer, let alone both, to help them in the playoffs, likely settling for lesser talent through a trade.

As well, this is all with the assumption the Islanders would have been able to retain their entire 2019 free-agent class. Now-captain Anders Lee was closing in on a contract with the Chicago Blackhawks before returning to the Islanders. Had he not been named captain following Tavares’ departure, he may have left for the Blackhawks. He played a crucial role on Long Island on and off the ice once Tavares left, scoring at a near 30-goal pace each of the following four seasons. Other players signed during the 2019 offseason include Semyon Varlamov, Brock Nelson, and Jordan Eberle.

During the 2019 offseason, the Islanders lost Lehner to free agency and subsequently signed Varlamov to a four-year deal. Had Tavares remained with the team, the Islanders might have been more willing to meet Lehner’s contract demands, given the team’s lack of exceptional goaltending during Tavares’ previous seasons. This scenario could have deterred Ilya Sorokin from signing with the Islanders, as it was believed that the presence of Varlamov, a fellow Russian, influenced Sorokin’s decision to come to North America.

Tavares Reality Check

Since joining Toronto, Tavares has only slightly outperformed Lee, reaching the 30-goal mark just twice. The Leafs have only advanced to the second round of the playoffs once since his signing and have struggled to make major free-agent signings or trades due to their salary cap constraints. Now, reports are suggesting Tavares might lose his captaincy.

Given the uncertainties of the future, it’s hard to predict how the 2020s would have unfolded, but it’s highly unlikely the Islanders would have been better off if Tavares had stayed. While the Islanders could have used an elite goal scorer like Tavares in their 2020 and 2021 playoff runs, which were hindered by a lack of scoring talent, keeping Tavares on such an expensive deal would have been a mistake. The team would have struggled to acquire or retain much of their core that led them on deep playoff runs, and Tavares has never played at a level to justify such decisions. He is a great player, and the Islanders would have benefited from having him, but not at such a high cost. If he had been willing to take a team-friendly discount in the eight-year, $72 million range, it would have been a different story.

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