They got it done. The Toronto Maple Leafs managed to convince a homegrown star in his prime to sign with the team and now the Leafs look deadly in the East.
John Tavares has signed with the Maple Leafs for seven years and $77 million. While $11 million is a nice chunk of cap space, Toronto can afford it - at least for now. Crucial extensions are needed for the Big Three youngsters Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander, but only Nylander needs a new pact this summer (and it could be a bridge deal).
On top of being the team Tavares cheered for as a little boy growing up in the suburb of Oakville, Toronto is also in a great spot for the former New York Islanders captain, as his presence turns them into a legit threat to come out of the East next season.
With Tavares, Matthews and Nazem Kadri, the Maple Leafs now have depth at center that can only be rivalled by Pittsburgh and perhaps Washington. Kadri has already turned into a two-way shutdown guy under coach Mike Babcock and now he can really dedicate his agitating game to that cause. The presence of Tavares means a nightmare decision for any opponent, even for road games, as they will essentially pick their poison in trying to block a Tavares line or a Matthews line. Undoubtedly, this creates more room for Matthews, who is coming off an injury-shortened sophomore campaign that still produced a point-per-game. Matthews faced tougher competition than he did as a rookie and really, the sky’s the limit now.
Assuming Babcock keeps the Zach Hyman-Matthews-Nylander trio together next year, Tavares could find wingers in veteran shooter Patrick Marleau and the dazzling Marner, who led the team in scoring this past season. Marner broke the 20-goal mark, but with his sublime passing skills, is probably better dishing more to Tavares, who flirted with 40 goals a couple times in his Islanders career.
Those are two potent scoring lines right there. Kadri could line up with Connor Brown and either Kasperi Kapanen or Andreas Johnsson, giving the Leafs a shutdown line that can still provide offense. With Josh Jooris signed today as well, Toronto has a fourth-line center option and it will be interesting to see if energetic winger Carl Grundstrom can crack the lineup after helping the AHL’s Marlies win the Calder Cup alongside playoff MVP Johnsson.
Ideally, the Leafs will still add another defenseman to the roster before fall. Heck, it could even come in the next day or two: cruel as it may seem, the Islanders could also lose Calvin de Haan to Toronto if he wants to follow his buddy JT in free agency. Tavares and de Haan played junior together in Oshawa and London before becoming Islanders.
As it is, Travis Dermott will play a bigger role on the back end after getting some experience this past season, while Justin Holl deserves a longer look, too. Both won the Calder Cup with the Marlies this summer. If Nikita Zaitsev can rebound from an awful campaign marred by the fallout from a concussion, then things are pretty decent already, even without de Haan. Think about the defense corps that Pittsburgh won its most recent Stanley Cup with - the one that had star Kris Letang on the sideline for the entire post-season.
Perhaps most importantly is that Dallas signed away Roman Polak, meaning Babcock can’t play the veteran D-man who brought the Leafs down, despite what the coach constantly told the press.
While Tavares has seven years to deliver a Cup to Toronto (and yes, those are the expectations), it doesn’t have to be right away. But the salary cap will become a factor once Matthews and Marner get their big deals and there’s no time like the present to at least make a deep run. The Maple Leafs roster has never looked better - and it’s still July 1.