NHL free agency 2018 – John Tavares Joins Toronto Maple Leafs

NHL free agency 2018 - John Tavares Joins the Maple Leafs

NHL free agency 2018 – John Tavares Joins Toronto Maple Leafs

John Tavares, an Islander his entire nine-year career and the team captain the past five seasons, has decided to go home. He signed a seven-year, $77 million contract on Sunday with the Toronto Maple Leafs that will bolster that club but leave the Islanders without the longtime face of their franchise.

NHL free agency 2018 - John Tavares Joins the Maple Leafs

The 27-year-old Tavares was the first overall pick by the Islanders in 2009 and went on to lead the team in scoring seven times. His signature moment was the double-overtime goal scored against Florida in the 2016 playoffs, which clinched the series for the Islanders. It turned out to be the only postseason series that Tavares won in his near-decade with the team.

“I’m thrilled to be starting a new chapter of my career and life in Toronto,” Tavares said on his Twitter feed after agreeing to the deal with the Maple Leafs. “I feel very fortunate to come join a team with a great young core and play where I grew up learning and loving the game.’’

The Islanders missed the playoffs for the second straight year last season, and for the sixth time in Tavares’s Islanders tenure.

The Islanders made wholesale front-office changes after last season, hiring Lou Lamoriello as the president of hockey operations and then naming him general manager as well in place of Garth Snow. Lamoriello, in turn, hired Barry Trotz, who led the Washington Capitals to the Stanley Cup this past spring, to replace Doug Weight as coach.

But that wasn’t enough to convince Tavares to stick around, even with the Islanders’ majority owner, Jon Ledecky, and Snow repeatedly stating that they wanted Tavares to remain an Islander for his entire career.

“It was tough,” Tavares said on Sunday. “You’re in one place for so long, you get so embedded, your roots are so deep in there. You care so much about the people and the people that have cared about you.”

Tavares grew up a Maple Leafs fan in Mississauga, Ontario. In his Twitter statement, he said he was “thankful that I had the opportunity to be an Islander for as long as I did,” but added that it was “time to live my childhood dream here in Toronto.”

Tavares maintained all season he did not want his contract situation to be a distraction. He watched teammates Kyle Okposo and Frans Nielsen go through the same process two years ago and emphasized in April there would be ample time to mull his future after the season. He made his choice public after months of tension for the Islanders’ fan base.

The New York captain, who is coming off a six-year, $33 million contract, had 37 goals and 47 assists last season. Despite his production, the Islanders missed the playoffs for the second straight season. They have been to the postseason only three times in his career and never advanced past the conference quarterfinals.

Tavares has played for four head coaches in New York, which has had stadium issues. He started his Islanders tenure at the deteriorating Nassau Coliseum before moving to the Barclays Center in 2015. The basketball-first arena has had ice issues and sight-line problems for hockey, and the Islanders announced they are building their own arena at Belmont Park. Until it is completed in 2021, however, the team will split time between Barclays and a refurbished Nassau Coliseum. The Islanders had been hoping that Tavares would remain to be the star on their new stage.

The Leafs lost forwards James van Riemsdyk and Tyler Bozak this free-agency period, but they made up for it in a big way, getting a star to pair with Auston Matthews.

“I just felt this opportunity was just so rare, the timing of where the organization’s at and obviously the connection being from here,” Tavares said. “I really believe there’s a big window here to win, to be part of something special. It just felt right.”

Tavares specifically referenced Matthews and 21-year-old center Mitch Marner, who led the Leafs with 69 points last season, as reasons to be optimistic.

“They’ve accomplished so much in such little time. You can only think about the trajectory they’re on, and that’s what gets me excited,” Tavares said.

The Leafs had a franchise-best 105 points last season but lost to the Bruins in seven games in the first round of the playoffs.

Tavares spent last week meeting with the Islanders, San Jose, Toronto, Dallas, Tampa Bay and Boston. By waiting until Sunday, Tavares gave up the opportunity to sign an eight-year extension with the Islanders.

In a bid to retain Tavares, the Islanders underwent an organizational makeover in recent months under still relatively new owners Scott Malkin and Jon Ledecky. They hired Lamoriello as president of hockey operations/GM and fresh Stanley Cup winner Barry Trotz as coach.

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