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  • The Toronto Maple Leafs won the grand prize of 2018 NHL free agency, signing star center John Tavares to a seven-year, $77 million deal that strengthens a young, promising Stanley Cup contender.
By Michael Blinn
June 30, 2018

Tavares Watch is finally over.

After weeks of wondering and pontificating over every pitch meeting the star center took, John Tavares signed with the Toronto Maple Leafs for seven years at an $11 million AAV.

Because he did not sign with the Islanders by midnight on June 30th, Tavares was limited to a maximum of seven years instead of eight. 

The prize of the 2018 free agency class, Tavares notched 37 goals and 84 points in 82 games in the 2017-18 season, giving the top pick in the 2009 NHL draft 272 goals and 621 points in 669 games over nine seasons, all with the New York Islanders.

• NHL Free Agency Signing TrackerList of Available NHL Free Agents

The Mississauga, Ontario native has been linked to several teams in recent weeks, including his hometown Maple Leafs, the San Jose Sharks, Tampa Bay Lightning, Dallas Stars and Boston Bruins, as well as the Islanders, who made several changes aimed at keeping their five-time All-Star pivot, including replacing the team’s GM and head coach but were ultimately unable to keep him in the fold.

Making the decision was no easy task, as he'd met with all those teams to hear pitches in the week leading up to free agency.

"It was quite the process," he said at his introductory press conference. "One of the toughest weeks, and obviously I say that knowing the position I'm in and how fortunate I am to be in this position. It's tough. You're in one place for so long, you get so embedded, your roots are so deep in there … it really took the right opportunity and the right fit. I thought the timing couldn't be beat, and certainly being from here and where this team's at and how good and young their core players are, and seeing in recent weeks how the [Calder Cup-winning] Marlies did and what the future holds … it was hard to turn down."

Toronto GM Kyle Dubas said that after the team made its pitch, he fielded questions from the Tavares camp during the week, and moved quickly once the center's intentions became clear.

"Late last night, it became apparent this was the way John was leaning with his decision," Dubas said, "and then we had to work out a contract very, very late last night and into this morning."

Tavares now joins a young, up-and-coming roster that includes Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander and more burgeoning stars. 

"They're such a big part of it here," Tavares said of new teammates Matthews and Marner. "They've accomplished so much in such little time. You can only think about the trajectory that they're on. I think that's what gets me excited, those players are so good at such a young age in such a big spotlight. Auston's got great potential to be one of the great goalscorers in our league. Mitch, his speed, his ability to control the play, control the game … create time and space with his feet is impressive.

"The most important part was that players that John was going to play with," GM Kyle Dubas said of how he saw the decision process playing out. "If you boiled it down, that's why players want to come to different places, because the players that they're going to play with and be with every day together on the team."

The Maple Leafs hope adding Tavares to their young core will help get the team over the hump as they seek out their first Stanley Cup since 1967. They're coming off a franchise-best 105-point effort in 2017-18 and finished third in a stacked Atlantic Division, but fell in the first round of the postseason to the rival Boston Bruins.

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A 1-2-3 punch down the middle of Tavares, Matthews and Nazem Kadri will help the Leafs keep up in an Eastern Conference arms race, though they're due for more big contracts in short order: Nylander is currently awaiting a new deal as an RFA this offseason, while Matthews, Marner, Kasperi Kapanen and Josh Leivo will need new deals after the 2018-19 season.

The Maple Leafs will pay their new star $650,000 in salary for his first season in Toronto with $15.25 million in bonuses; in Tavares's second season, his salary bumps to $910,000 with a $14.99M bonus, and then an $11.09M bonus in the third year, $8.44M in year four and $7.04M in the final three seasons of the deal.

In announcing his move, Tavares also addressed the Islanders front office, which includes new GM Lou Lamoriello, who worked hard behind the scenes to sway the player, including hiring coach Barry Trotz and loading up on promising prospects at the 2018 NHL draft.

"I've been so fortunate to be an Islander not only because of the love and support of the fan base, but because of how lucky I was to be around so many great people," Tavares tweeted on Sunday afternoon. "From ownership through management, staff and of course all my teammates, they helped me mature and grow into who I am today. I will always be thankful for how they molded and guided me to be a better person and hockey player. Memories and friendships that I will forever hold close to my heart. Thank you everyone for your impact on me, I will always be grateful. My words will never be able to fully show the impact my time on the Island had on me."

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