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  • In the end, Toronto offered John Tavares two things no one else could: The NHL's best young core, and the thrall of home.
By Alex Prewitt
July 02, 2018

The boy is passed out in the picture, eyes closed and mouth agape. It is 11:41 p.m., at least according to the Star Wars-themed alarm clock perched atop his childhood bed. Who knows exactly what fantasies wormed through his mind that night many years ago, but it is not hard to guess. Just look at the pillowcase, the blanket, the fitted sheets … all emblazoned with the blue and white colors and logo of his beloved Toronto Maple Leafs.

John Tavares tweeted this photo at 1:06 p.m. on Sunday afternoon, five minutes after concluding a 159-word farewell missive to his former club with a simple declaration that rocked the hockey world: "Its [sic] time to live my childhood dream here in Toronto." Any grammatical errors can be forgiven, of course, given the torturous week that preceded this decision. "My gut was just tearing apart," he told reporters later, dressed in a dark blue suit with a Maple Leafs pin clipped to its left lapel. "My heart was tearing apart trying to figure out what I wanted to do."

Ultimately his heart and gut—plus those silky hands and hawkish vision—wanted Tavares to sign with Toronto for seven years and $77 million, a significant hometown discount compared with what the New York Islanders reportedly offered to retain his services as their captain and top-line center. They were among the six suitors that descended upon Beverly Hills last week, lining up outside agent Pat Brisson's CAA office like it was Odysseus's palace. Representatives from the Bruins, Lightning, Sharks and Stars each made pilgrimages too, attempting to sell Tavares on sunshine or cold cash, immediate hopes or future plans, this or that. But Toronto offered two things that no one else could: The NHL's best young core, and the thrall of home.

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2018 NHL Free Agency Signing Tracker

"I knew it was a little bit of the uncomfortable thing to do," Tavares said at his introductory press conference, "but I didn't want that to hold me back from taking a chance at a great opportunity."

Uncomfortable? Sure. Tavares is a soft-spoken, monotoned superstar whose personal story rarely delves deeper than his supreme ability to pass and shoot pucks. He spent nine years on Long Island after getting drafted No. 1 overall in 2009, engineering a turnaround that netted three straight 40-win seasons and three playoff appearances in four years. He is 27 now, engaged to fiancée Aryne Fuller, looking at the next stage of his life and career. Any move—especially to the NHL's maddest market, starving for its first Stanley Cup since 1967—would surely demand a mental adjustment.

But the biggest free agent signing since Boston's Zdeno Chara is most certainly not, as some have described it, a blind leap of faith. In Toronto, Tavares will form a three-headed monster up the middle alongside Auston Matthews and Nazem Kadri that rivals the center depth of Stanley Cup-champion Washington (Evgeny Kuznetsov, Nicklas Backstrom, Lars Eller) and the recently dethroned emperor Penguins (Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Derick Brassard). There is dynamic winger Mitch Marner, who will open the season flanking Tavares’s right side, not to mention 24-year-old defenseman Morgan Rielly, 22-year-old winger William Nylander, and a host of others slated to help the franchise challenge for years to come.

As one player texted to SI.com in the wake of Tavares’s decision: "Juiced as all hell. Awesome time for leaf fans."

No, the signing does not guarantee instant success, not even in the Atlantic Division. Nor does it guarantee that Tavares, whose 0.98 points per game since ‘11-12 rank sixth league-wide during that span, will advance beyond the second round for the first time in his career. The Lightning are still loaded after reaching their third conference finals in four seasons. The Bruins still boast perhaps the NHL's most dangerous top trio with Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak. Even the Panthers are lurking in their swampy, south Florida shadows, ready to rise on the backs of Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau and recently acquired winger Mike Hoffman. And who knows what domino effect this signing will spark for the likes of Carolina's Jeff Skinner, Montreal's Max Pacioretty, and the other forwards whose trade fates were suspended until the fumata bianca rose from Tavares’s summer home in Toronto?

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But consider how woebegone Toronto seemed only two years ago—before the ping-pong balls netted Matthews, before veteran Patrick Marleau signed last offseason, before 32-year-old general manager Kyle Dubas replaced Lou Lamoriello behind the ship's wheel and instantly reeled back the biggest free agency fish. Matthews, Marner and Nylander will all command sizable contract extensions soon, but those are problems for distant days. After all, consider how many Toronto-area boys and girls went to sleep Sunday night, swaddled in their Maple Leafs blankies, and dreamed of a Stanley Cup closer than their young lives have ever known.

MORE FREE AGENCY THOUGHTS

• What will become of the Islanders now that their franchise superstar has bolted for bluer pastures? They offered eight years—plus, reportedly, enough scratch to fill the Long Island Sound—and still emerged empty-handed. Depth signings like Leo Komarov (four years, $12 million) and Valtteri Filppula (one year, $2.75 million) will not come close to filling the void, and the team still needs another goaltender to slot alongside Thomas Greiss. Twenty-one-year-old forwards Mathew Barzal and Anthony Beauvillier are surefire building blocks, but Lamoriello and new coach Barry Trotz will have their hands full bringing the Islanders back from this rejection.

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• Other than the Tavares sweepstakes, July 1 turned out to be a snoozer. The NHL's interview window is a transparent farce not unlike its NBA counterpart; if specific numbers can't be discussed, how did terms and salaries leak for James van Riemsdyk (Philadelphia, five years, $35 million), Jack Johnson (Pittsburgh, five years, $16.25 million) and Paul Stastny (Vegas, three years, $19.5 million) beforehand? At least the Pacific Division did its part in filling dead airtime between the early eight-year extensions inked by San Jose's Logan Couture ($64 million), Los Angeles’s Drew Doughty ($88 million) and Arizona's Oliver Ekman-Larsson ($66 million).

• High marks to St. Louis general manager Doug Armstrong for wriggling pricy center Ryan O'Reilly in a trade from Buffalo, and then fortifying his forward depth by signing middle-six options Tyler Bozak and David Perron. Detention for Vancouver's Jim Benning after handing four-year, $12 million deals to Jay Beagle and Antoine Roussel, who scored a combined 12 goals in 152 games last season.

• Keep watch over Vegas entering its second season. GM George McPhee continues lurking around Ottawa defenseman Erik Karlsson's expiring contract and possesses oodles of salary cap space even with restricted free agents William Karlsson, Shea Theodore, Colin Miller and others left to sign. A magical inaugural campaign cemented the Golden Knights as the premier entertainment act in town, but does McPhee have anything else hidden up his sleeve?

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