New York Islanders captain John Tavares is unquestionably the top player eligible for unrestricted free agency next July. The 27-year-old first-line center will attract considerable attention if he tests the market.
The last player comparable to Tavares playing in a contract year was Tampa Bay Lightning center Steven Stamkos in 2015-16. So far, the Isles captain hasn't faced the same intense media speculation over his future as Stamkos did. That's probably based on the assumption he'll re-sign once the club's bid to build a new arena at Belmont Park is approved by the state of New York.
But the longer Tavares goes without a new contract with the Isles, the more questions will be raised about his future.
If the Islanders haven't received approval for their arena bid before the Feb. 26 trade deadline, the New York Post's Larry Brooks believes it could leave them facing a difficult choice with Tavares. One option is hanging onto their franchise player and risk losing him to free agency. The other is attempting to move him for a big return to a team he might be willing to sign an extension with. Brooks suggests Tavares could be agreeable to signing with the Lightning, Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens. However, there's no certainty he'll end up with one of those teams at the deadline or via free agency.
The Lightning are already deep at center with Steven Stamkos, Tyler Johnson and Brayden Point. They've invested a combined $13.5 million in long-term contracts for Stamkos and Johnson. Sufficient cap space must be kept available for several key signings within the next two years. By 2019, Point could be due a significant raise coming off his entry-level contract. Right winger Nikita Kucherov could seek to double his current $4.7-million annual cap hit while defenseman Anton Stralman will be eligible for unrestricted free agency.
The Lightning could shed some salary in whatever return the Isles might seek. However, it'll have to be substantial to comfortably absorb the $10 million annual cap hit Tavares could command and still leave enough to re-sign their own key free agents.
Toronto already has a first-line superstar center in Auston Matthews while Tyler Bozak and Nazem Kadri fill the second- and third-line roles. Assuming the Mississauga-born Tavares wants to join the Leafs, he'll have to accept second-banana status behind the 20-year-old Matthews. Cap space could also become an issue for the Leafs. Matthews and wingers William Nylander and Mitch Marner will complete their ELCs within the next two years. All will seek big raises, especially Matthews, who could get a lengthy deal comparable to Edmonton Oilers center Connor McDavid's eight-year, $100-million deal.
Like Tavares, Bozak and left winger James van Riemsdyk are eligible for UFA status in July. The cost of re-signing van Riemsdyk ($4.25-million annual cap hit) will be steep. There's also the matter of their ongoing need for an experienced top-two defenseman.
Tavares might be a better fit with the Canadiens, who lack a true first-line center and currently carry over $8 million in cap room for this season. However, they'll have over $60 million invested in 16 players when goaltender Carey Price's new contract ($10.5-million AAV for eight years) kicks in next July. They also lack sufficient assets to pry Tavares away from the Islanders via trade.
Perhaps the San Jose Sharks could be a better option for Tavares. The Mercury News' Paul Gackle and NBC Sports Bay Area's Marcus White suggest the Isles captain could help the Sharks transition from 38-year-old center Joe Thornton. With over $57 million committed to 17 players for 2018-19, the Sharks have the cap room to sign Tavares. They also carry depth in young assets to potentially tempt the Isles at the trade deadline. That's assuming Tavares, who's played his entire career in the Eastern Conference, would be comfortable signing with a West Coast team.
All of this could be baseless speculation if the Isles' arena bid receives state approval before February. But until that happens, Tavares' future could become a topic of growing interest in the NHL rumor mill.
Rumor Roundup appears regularly only on thehockeynews.com. Lyle Richardson has been an NHL commentator since 1998 on his website, spectorshockey.net, and is a contributing writer for Eishockey News and The Guardian (P.E.I.).
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