TORONTO (AP) – John Tavares needed to post only one picture on his Twitter account to explain the grip the Maple Leafs have had on him since he was a youngster growing up in suburban Toronto.
The photo featured a not-yet-10-year-old Tavares in bed, asleep on a pillowcase and under a blanket adorned with Maple Leafs logos, and accompanied by a note that read: “Not everyday you can live a childhood dream.”
In bidding farewell to the New York Islanders, where he was the captain and face of the franchise since being drafted with the No. 1 pick in 2009, Tavares chose Toronto and agreed to a seven-year, $77 million contract about an hour after the NHL’s free-agency signing period opened Sunday.
The 27-year-old Tavares spent last week assessing offers from the Islanders, San Jose, Toronto, Dallas, Tampa Bay and Boston. He called his decision the toughest of his life in choosing between staying in New York or taking “a calculated leap of faith into an opportunity I believe will be special to me and my family.”
In the end, he was unable to avoid the lure Toronto presented, and informed the Maple Leafs he had chosen them late Saturday night.
“I just felt this opportunity was just so rare, the timing of where the organization’s at, and obviously the connection being from here,” Tavares said. “I really believe there’s a big window here to win, to be part of something special. It just felt right.”
Tavares, whose 306 points over the past four seasons rank sixth among players over that span, was the highest-profile player to hit the market since the Minnesota Wild signed both Zach Parise and Ryan Suter to matching 13-year, $98 million contracts.
Tavares’ signing led to a domino effect in player movement.
Toronto lost two forwards in free agency. James van Riemsdyk left the Maple Leafs after six seasons to return to Philadelphia, where he signed a five-year, $35 million contract. The Leafs also lost center Tyler Bozak, who signed a three-year, $15 million contract with St. Louis, which later on beefed up down the middle by acquiring Ryan O’Reilly in a blockbuster trade with the Buffalo Sabres.
Some of money the Lightning saved by not landing Tavares was spent on signing defenseman Ryan McDonagh to a seven-year, $47.25 million extension, which kicks in next summer.
Paul Stastny caused another ripple of moves in the Western Conference. He left Winnipeg to sign a three-year, $19.5 million contract with the Stanley Cup finalist Vegas Golden Knights — a spot left open after David Perron returned to St. Louis by signing a four-year, $16 million deal.
Vegas forward James Neal is among the more high-profile free agents still unsigned.
In Nashville, the Predators will turn their attention to negotiating a contract extension with defenseman Ryan Ellis, who is entering the final year of his contract. The Ottawa Senators are expected to do the same with their captain, Erik Karlsson.
Tavares’ signing has the potential of shifting the balance of power in the Eastern Conference.
He joins a young, talented group that already features Auston Matthews, the 2016 draft’s No. 1 pick, a veteran presence in Patrick Marleau and a top coach in Mike Babcock.
The Leafs, who haven’t won a championship since their last Stanley Cup Final appearance in 1967, have made strides in three years since Babcock’s arrival. Toronto has made the playoffs in each of the past two seasons after qualifying just once in the previous 11. And yet, they have not advanced past the first round since 2004.
Tavares specifically referenced Matthews and 21-year-old center Mitchell Marner, who led the Leafs with 69 points last season as reasons to be optimistic.
“They’ve accomplished so much in such little time. You can only think about the trajectory they’re on, and that’s what gets me excited,” Tavares said.
The Islanders experienced struggles even with Tavares by qualifying for the playoffs just three times in nine seasons.
Now they face a daunting uphill climb minus their unquestioned leader and point-a-game producer. In a bid to retain Tavares, the team underwent an organizational makeover in recent months. They hired Lou Lamoriello as president of hockey operations and fresh Stanley Cup winner Barry Trotz as coach.
“The New York Islanders would like to thank John Tavares for everything he has done for the franchise throughout his nine seasons,” Lamoriello said in a statement released by the team. “We wish him and his family all the best.”
Bruins GM Don Sweeney expressed one lament in losing out on signing Tavares.
“I would have preferred it not be in our division,” Sweeney said, referring to Tavares making the switch from the Metropolitan to Atlantic Division. “We put our best foot forward. It just didn’t fall our way.”
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