Emptiness is the feeling. A team without a leader and nine years of prominence ended abruptly. The realization that John Tavares will no longer wear a New York Islanders uniform after informing the team that he’ll take his talents north of the border. Just like that, a new era begins with more adjustments and changes than anybody with attachment to the organization ever envisioned, leaving uncertainty of what lies ahead.
The day of reckoning was on the minds of Islanders fans and team officials for roughly a year or more. No one could envision a scenario where Tavares would don any colors but blue, white, and orange. Since the day the Islanders drafted him first overall, Tavares was a leader. A man who led with quiet dignity, paving the lead for youngsters, such as Andres Lee to extract the most out of their abilities.
No fan will forget where they were when he scored the overtime-clinching goal against the Florida Panthers to win their first playoff series since 1993. It always seemed as though greater things were ahead for Tavares. The captain’s place in the organization didn’t leave a midseason trade as a viable option during the spring since hope remained that the team could retain his services. Tavares said the right things and avoided letting his contract situation become a distraction, even as the club spiraled out of postseason consideration.
The Isles quickly made personnel upgrades, installing Lou Lamoriello as general manager and Barry Trotz as head coach. The duo believed Tavares would return under the right circumstances and kept the hope intact while five other teams vied for his services. Ultimately, Tavares made the decision he believes that serves him best for his career. The opportunity to break Toronto’s 51-year Stanley Cup drought and guide Auston Matthews in his ascension from promising phenom to an elite talent.
The wounds of losing a player of Tavares’s caliber will remain fresh for the foreseeable future. The Islanders are no stranger to experiencing the pain of losing a superstar. Pat LaFontaine, Pierre Turgeon, and Zigmund Palffy each experienced high levels of success with the Isles before embarking on new chapters in their careers. The only differences in those cases were said players were traded due to salary demands or other circumstances. Turgeon’s departure in April 1995 to the Montreal Canadiens was the last time the Isles lost a former number one overall pick, and although they received a trade return, Kirk Muller had no desire of playing in Long Island and the club received little to nothing on their investment.
While reaction emotions may make the post-Tavares outlook seem bleak, the cupboard is not entirely bare. Reigning Calder Trophy winner Mathew Barzal likely enters his sophomore season inheriting Tavares’s spot on the top line and becomes their most dynamic playmaker. The NHL Draft brought encouraging returns with first round picks Oliver Wahlstrom and Noah Dobson, who will have an impact on the club’s future in the coming years.
Anders Lee and Jordan Eberle figure to return in the final year of the their contract and help fill a share of the void left by Tavares, while Anthony Beauvillier will look to build off a strong second half following a brief stint in the minor leagues in Bridgeport. The Islanders have roughly $32 million in cap space and could elect to upgrade their defense and goaltending via a trade or free agency and possibly add a veteran center.
Losing a franchise stalwart is always a rough pill to swallow. The fond memories of years past dissipate though confusion and acrimony with increasing pain. But the feelings must eventually give way to the future. Even after losing Tavares, the Islanders employ one of the top head coach/GM tandems in the sport and pieces in place that can keep the club viable and competitive while building a championship-level contender. Though the idea of Tavares contributing to that vision was the preferred route, looking back at what may have been won’t change reality. The priority now becomes using the available resources to find and cultivate new talents in the endless pursuit of a common goal.