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The elephant in the Maple Leafs room is the captain with the giant-sized contract that isn’t going away.
And it makes for uncomfortable conversation — especially now with money so tight and the Leafs with so many needs.
It seemed like such a good idea at the time, signing John Tavares as a free agent, building your team around one of hockey’s better, more consistent players, who was finally freed from his purgatory with the New York Islanders.
He came home to win a Stanley Cup, to play with Mitch Marner, to play for coach Mike Babcock, to watch the Leafs grow up around him and with him as the natural veteran leader. And eventually to be named captain. The symbiosis of his signing of a seven-year $77-million contract couldn’t have been any more balanced or uplifting, or better staged than it was.
And then came the William Nylander contract dispute, followed by Auston Matthews signing for more money than the gigantic amount the Leafs were already paying Tavares. Then came the Marner negotiations, where he is basically lunch money behind Tavares in salary, and Tavares finds himself lunch money, by hockey standards, behind Matthews.
Four players at $40 million. It works if the salary cap keeps increasing year after year, maybe to as high as $100 million. Instead, the salary cap is artificially listed at $81.5 million for this coming season, whenever that will be, and may not reach that high the following season, depending on when fans are allowed to return to arenas and how the NHL chooses to proceed.
You can plan for just about everything in your front-office meetings, but you don’t plan for a pandemic. And you don’t plan for a Stanley Cup being won in September. You don’t plan for signing the giant Tavares, who turned out to be just ordinary in the one playoff series against Boston and just ordinary in the play-in round against Columbus in August.
You don’t pay $11 million a year for ordinary, although in fairness to Tavares, he has scored 148 points in 145 games as a Maple Leaf. That isn’t ordinary. Those are Tavares numbers, year after year after year. His career is a straight line that way.
But the Leafs have needed it to be more than that for the past two post-seasons. They needed a rising stock. In 12 games, seven playoffs, five pre-real-playoffs, he has eight points. That’s a 55-point pace. That’s not good enough.
That’s not what Brayden Point did for Tampa Bay on its way to a Stanley Cup. Point had 33 points in 23 games. That’s not what Nathan MacKinnon managed for Colorado. He had 25 points in 15 games.
That’s nowhere near what Elias Pettersson or Bo Horvat accomplished for Vancouver, or what Sebastian Aho scored with Carolina, Pierre-Luc Dubois scored for Columbus, Mathew Barzal for the Islanders.
All of them centres. All of them now advanced beyond Tavares as a Leaf.
Look around today’s NHL, where Tavares is the fifth-highest paid player in the league, and he would not be ranked among the top 10 centres. Closer to 20 probably.
Would you put him ahead of Leon Draisaitl or Connor McDavid? Not a chance. Ahead of MacKinnon, Jack Eichel, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin or Mark Scheifele? Ahead of Point or Patrice Bergeron, or his teammate Matthews, Pettersson or Aho?
And if a Canadian Olympic team were being picked for 2022, the only line Tavares would be considered for, if he was considered at all, would be the fourth line. The argument would be who plays centre — Crosby, MacKinnon or McDavid, or all three. Where do you put Point or even Jonathan Toews in a checking way?. And what about Bergeron or Scheifele or Sean Couturier, the Selke Trophy winner? Where exactly would Tavares fit in in the fourth of seven years on his $77-million deal.
There is a significant difference between being good at playoff time — or even in the regular season — and being great. And then the level beyond that. McDavid played just four games against Chicago and ended up with nine points. Point was a flip of the coin away from winning the Conn Smythe Trophy. Pettersson and Bo Horvat were dangerous for Vancouver against Minnesota, St. Louis and Vegas.
Contractually, the Leafs have five more years of Tavares, who may already have played the best hockey of his life. They can’t trade him, they can’t move him. And they need him because, after Matthews, they have nobody else of consequence at centre. The placing should be perfect for Tavares: The opponent sets up to stop Matthews first. He faces the No. 1 pair of defencemen. Tavares gets the second pairing. That should benefit him.
He needs to take more advantage of that, which will only tilt further in the other direction as Matthews continues to grow better.
This isn’t an easy column to write. There are no better people on the Maple Leafs than Tavares. There are no players more dedicated or more professional than him. He is the kind of man you cheer for, you hope for, you want to succeed.
But in these troubled times, with the draft and free agency coming up, the contract doesn’t match the player, who may be in decline. And nobody says a word about it because it’s John Tavares. There is hope that when next season comes, they get the Tavares of old back instead of just an old Tavares.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020