The player: John Tavares, C, 27
The terms: Seven years, $11 million annually with the Toronto Maple Leafs
Where does he fit in?
Coach Mike Babcock says Auston Matthews will remain in the middle of the first line, so Tavares will be the “No. 2” center, but the Leafs will really have a pair of top lines in reality. Combined with Nazem Kadri at No. 3, the Maple Leafs challenge the Pittsburgh Penguins for the best center trio in the league. With Tavares carrying a max seven-year deal at a hefty $11 million per year, Toronto will have some finagling to do in the next year or so to make this work. The Leafs had the cap space for 2018-19 to add Tavares into the fold — the deal includes some creative structuring — but with Matthews due for a new contract next summer, Toronto has problems in 2019-20 and beyond. That’s a huge test for rookie GM Kyle Dubas. It means he will have to be unemotional in some decisions — remember, he worked intimately with the AHL Toronto Marlies, ushering the growth of so many young Maple Leafs — and part with familiar names. But it’s worth it for a player of Tavares’ caliber. Since Tavares made his NHL debut in 2009-10, his 272 goals are the fifth most in the NHL. And his value extends well beyond that. It’s unclear whom Tavares will be playing with (we think he’d be a great fit with Patrick Marleau), but the Maple Leafs boast one of the top forward groups in the league. Of course, the defense remains a weakness, and Frederik Andersen, despite flashes, still isn’t considered a consistent top-tier goalie.
Does this deal make sense?
Yes, of course. Yes, yes, yes. This is the No. 1 free agent on the market. Most in the league remained dubious he would become available. Top free agents in the NHL rarely exercise their right for movement in the open market. Now Tavares gets to live out his childhood dream. Babcock, who already reportedly has a strained relationship with Matthews, may have to manage some egos. Matthews, the No. 1 pick of the 2016 draft, was supposed to be the face of this team. But the franchise dangled the captaincy in front of the 20-year-old yet never actually let Matthews claim the carrot. This is now Tavares’ team, and Toronto must manage what happens with Matthews, who will be an RFA next summer. (Mitch Marner will be an RFA next summer, as well, and logically, he might be the one who is used as trade bait if Toronto gets into a cap crunch.)
Overall grade: A
For the Maple Leafs, this was a no-brainer. The fact that they didn’t have to do something wacky in signing Tavares is gravy — this is a straight-up hockey deal that makes the rich richer. Of course, the Maple Leafs are going to have to upgrade their defense eventually; Jake Gardiner and Ron Hainsey both become UFAs next summer, and it will be hard for Toronto to keep both (especially Gardiner) at market price. But to rise above the many, many suitors and win the ultimate free-agency sweepstakes is unequivocally a win for Toronto.