John Tavares: Homeward Bound

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For many professional hockey players, the game and their position in it is driven by money. The contracts, salaries and all important “per season” salary cap figures play a big role in dictating player movement within the National Hockey League.

(Carlos Osorio/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

With the NHL Free Agency period wrapping up, we gear up for a highly anticipated 2018-19 season. And for Leafs fans, Christmas came early.

For long-suffering Toronto Maple Leafs fans, the 2017-18 season was filled with hope as the team challenged all season long, finishing fourth in the Eastern Conference and third in the Atlantic Division. They made the playoffs for a second straight season with a lineup driven by the likes of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander and Nazem Kadri.

But now, Maple Leafs fans around the world have even more reason to like the team’s chances moving into 2018-19 with arguably the biggest free agency signing as former New York Islanders’ captain and 2009 First Overall Draft Pick John Tavares signed a monster seven-year, $77 million contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs, bringing the superstar home, just 30 minutes from were it all began for Tavares in Mississauga, Ontario.

The Best Defense is a Great Offense

Tavares proved from a young age that he would be one to watch when it came to exceptional hockey players. At just 14, the rules in the Ontario Hockey League were bent for Tavares, allowing him to be drafted before the cut-off age of 15. Over the next few years, Tavares lit up the OHL, playing for the Oshawa Generals and later the London Knights before becoming eligible for the NHL Entry Level Draft in 2009 where he was snapped up as first overall by New York.

Since commencing his NHL career in 2009, Tavares has played in 669 games, tallying 621 points on 272 goals and 349 assists, making him one of the most dangerous and sought after players in the league producing nearly a point-per-game average (0.928).

“I remember going to skate for the first time at Clarkson Arena  close to where I grew up and you start following the Leafs and you think as a kid, ‘Oh, if I’m going to play hockey I’m going to be a Maple Leaf one day,’” Tavares told Canada’s Sportsnet. “When you’re five, six, seven years old that’s the way you think.

“You start to think about back when you were a kid and how fun it was watching the Leafs growing up. … At the end of the day I felt like it was a rare opportunity I couldn’t pass up.”

The Maple Leafs ignored their defensive liabilities, instead adding to their already potent offense while fulfilling Tavares’ dream of returning home by bringing the left-handed center and much-loved Ontario native home to Canadian soil this off-season. To the delight of the blue and white, fans are excited about what Tavares will add to the already potent Leafs forward line.

Be Careful What You Wish For

There have been many cases across the NHL where a desire to return home drives player movement across the league. Many players who establish themselves as icons at specific franchises give this up and often seek a return home.

In the hockey history books, this has proven a blessing for some and a curse for others.

For hockey legend Mark Messier it was a return home to the New York Rangers (after five Stanley Cups in Edmonton and a forgettable stint in Vancouver) that turned him into hockey royalty. Messier won the Hart Trophy in 1991-92 and a cup with the Rangers in 1994 after the trade on the eve of the season saw him land with the Blueshirts.

Another example was Vancouver Canucks legend Trevor Linden. From 1988-97, Linden did some great things for the Canucks, leading them to within one game of the Stanley Cup in 1994. However, as mentioned earlier, the arrival of Messier in 1997 was the start of a tumultuous period for Linden, moving between the ​Islanders, Montreal Canadiens and Washington Capitals in a three-year period before he returned to Vancouver in 2001, retiring a legend of the franchise in 2008.

John Tavares speaks to the media in the Leafs dressing room. The Toronto Maple Leafs signed the five-time NHL All-Star for seven years, $77 million. July 1, 2018. (Carlos Osorio/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

For some players, a return home occurs after many ups and downs and gives them a Cinderella-style ending to their careers. In other cases, players are not so lucky.

For 1990’s star Doug Gilmour, his return home to the Toronto Maple Leafs would end in heartbreak. After a 10-player trade sent him from the Calgary Flames to Toronto in 1992, a 127-point record season and several conference finals followed. However, by 1996-97, his run with his hometown Leafs came to an end as unforgettable stints in New Jersey with the Devils and Montreal were to follow before home beckoned for Gilmour in 2003. He made his way home for what he hoped would be a fairy tale finish to his career.

It was not to be, however. Eight shifts into his return, a collision in a game against Calgary gave Gilmour a career-ending knee injury and his hope of riding off into the sunset came to a screeching halt.

J.T.

(L-R) Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan, John Tavares and Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas pose for a photo during the announcement. The Toronto Maple Leafs have signed John Tavares for seven years, $77 million. July 1, 2018. (Carlos Osorio/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

Although Tavares has never played for the Maple Leafs, he is regarded as a legend of Ontario Hockey through his time in the juniors and representing Team Canada at numerous World Championships. His landing in Toronto is one of the biggest and most nostalgic Maple Leafs signings of recent years and expect his first game in the 416 to feel like a homecoming where the Maple Leaf fans will surely give him a very warm welcome.

As for how he will slot into the Maple Leafs lines, just the prospect of seeing Tavares line up alongside some of the best forwards in the game is the stuff of dreams for Leafs fans. The 2018-19 campaign will get underway in October with a lot of expectations riding on the back of #91.

“It just seemed like the fit was right, the timing was right,” Tavares added. “I just had that instinct that this was the right thing for me to do.”

Welcome home John Tavares.

 

Written by Chris McRae / @ChrisMcRae04

Special to HockeyClan

 

Main Image: John Tavares posing with his jersey in the Leafs locker room. The Toronto Maple Leafs signed Tavares for seven years, $77 million. July 1, 2018. (Carlos Osorio/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

 

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