Although it seems to occur every time a high-profile free-agent could hit the market, Toronto media have once again conjured a dream of landing a superstar. John Tavares is experiencing major difficulty in coming to terms with the New York Islanders, primarily because of the uncertainty of their arena situation. The team needs to prove that they are both competitive and can secure a home for the foreseeable future. Enter Toronto, who believes that the contract negotiation difficulty automatically propels them into a top-3 competitor for Tavares’ services. If this story may sound familiar, that’s because it occurred just last off-season when Steven Stamkos was stalling his new deal with Tampa Bay.
Toronto inarguably is in a far superior negotiating position than they were in 2016. They’ve made the playoffs and took the Washington Capitals to their limits, and flaunt a young core who established itself as dominant quite before most believed possible. Given another season of success, the Leafs could be serious contenders for any UFA on the market. That said, a Tavares signing would be absurdly difficult and ultimately impractical for a multitude of reasons. The Leafs’ fanbase is already (rightfully) fretting over the difficulty of keeping Mitch Marner, Auston Matthews, and William Nylander together while staying under the cap ceiling. Each player will command hefty money on long-term deals, and the best case scenario (cap-wise) is that one of the three might have a “down” statistical year.
Even ignoring those future contracts, Toronto already made matters more complicated by signing Patrick Marleau to a 3-year contract worth $6.25 MM AAV. Assuming that the team keeps one or two of James van Riemsdyk, Leo Komarov, and Tyler Bozak (all UFAs in 2018), they will have precious room to devote to Tavares beyond 2018-19. After that point, Matthews and Marner will both be on new deals with heavy cap hits. Craig Button of TSN suggests that the Leafs could offer Tavares a one-year deal, but there is little to no security in such an arrangement. If the Islanders are unable to move Tavares or simply fall short of securing a new contract, Tavares will be likely seek a long-term arrangement. His primary stated concern at present is security, and a one-year contract elsewhere certainly doesn’t achieve said goal.
By signing Marleau, the writing for Toronto fans should have been clear and visible. Still, the Tavares hope persists. It’s not impossible that Tavares could sign a long-term contract in Toronto, but it would take a major roster overhaul to achieve. One of Marner or Nylander would necessarily need to depart, and the amount of money spent on the offense would only increase further. It seems likely that GM Lou Lamoriello will simply build upon the core that has been so successful without gutting the progress made. It would be unrealistic to expect Lamoriello to not at least inquire about Tavares if he indeed hits unrestricted free agency, but it would require a major organizational commitment without any real certainty in the matter. Tavares will receive a long-term contract, whether it is from New York or another franchise, but as of now the Leafs are not in a position to extend such an offer.