John Tavares owed the New York Islanders nothing. He gave them the best years of his career at a discounted price and, in return, the Islanders let him down with inept, inadequate, and unqualified management that should have read the writing on the wall when Tavares refused to put pen to paper on a contract extension before last season’s trade deadline.
Tavares choosing the Toronto Maple Leafs or any other competently run organization in free agency should have been considered a realistic possibility at last season’s trade deadline when the Islanders were sitting in 12th place in the Eastern Conference and on the verge of missing the playoffs for the sixth time in nine seasons. Instead, the Islanders assumed Tavares would come back in the summer out of loyalty or stupidity or a fear of the unknown, a sign of hubris not usually found in teams with one playoff series victory in a quarter-century.
Islanders fans are upset Tavares left after expressing in January a desire to stay with the team that drafted him with the first pick in 2009 and now feel betrayed because he didn’t want to spend the rest of his career playing for a rudderless organization not even he could steer to prominence. Tavares said the decision was difficult to choose Toronto over New York, which should result in fans directing their ire at management and not Tavares, because if the team was just a little more competitive, he probably could’ve talked himself into staying with the Islanders.
The team deserves all your vitriol, not Tavares. They could have fetched a king’s ransom for Tavares at the deadline but chose not to trade him for … reasons? They felt they could re-sign him even though he hadn’t re-signed? Because he requested not to be traded? Who cares what he requested? I can request that Shane Black make a sequel to The Nice Guys all I want but it doesn’t mean he has to listen to me. If Garth Snow wasn’t desperate to keep a job he should have lost a long time ago, perhaps he would have done the best thing for the organization and traded Tavares instead of doing the best thing for himself.
Hockey is the only sport where player loyalty is expected even if it’s not earned. Can you imagine the perennial sad-sack Baltimore Orioles not trading pending free agent Manny Machado at this year’s deadline because he requested it, then expressing shock when he didn’t re-sign in the offseason? Or imagine fans burning Machado’s jersey because he didn’t want to play for a team that’s never winning a championship during his career whether he’s there or not? It would never happen!
Re-signing never made sense for Tavares. He signed a six-year, $33 million extension—that’s a mere $5.5 million cap hit—after his second season and proceeded to have an 81-point season on the final year of his entry-level deal before posting the seventh-most points in the league during the life of his bargain six-year deal. His reward was Snow never icing anything close to a Stanley Cup contender while he was producing at a level that far exceeded his cap hit.
If that’s what the Islanders could do with Tavares at $5.5 million, how could he expect them to ever find success when he carried a cap hit twice the size? Tavares was supposed to have faith in 75-year-old Lou Lamoriello, who hasn’t won a Stanley Cup since 2003 and cares so much about hair length and toughness that it’s easier to picture him yelling at hippies protesting the Vietnam War than building a Cup contender?
And really, why would the Islanders even want Tavares for eight years and $88 million? Why would Snow or Lamoriello see the Islanders as anything other than a rebuild project? This is a team with zero goaltending, Andrew Ladd and Johnny Boychuk in their 30s with contracts that will grow more toxic by the season, Jordan Eberle and Anders Lee a year from becoming free agents and Mat Barzal two years from requiring a new, more expensive deal. Cleaning house at last season’s deadline and starting an immediate rebuild would have been the best thing for the Islanders and Tavares.
Throw in the Islanders’ years-long arena problems—even though they were technically resolved this year with plans for a new arena in Nassau County—and fans should be nominating Tavares for sainthood, because he never once complained publicly about any of the dysfunction he encountered for nine years. Islanders fans should be looking at Tavares like he’s Andy Dufresne, happy that he’s finally unshackled from his wrongful imprisonment, free to work on that boat with his friend for the rest of his days. If any hockey player in history ever crawled through 500 yards of shit and came out clean on the other side, it’s Tavares.
Instead of burning a Tavares jersey, consider burning the suits worn by Islanders ownership and front-office employees the past nine seasons.
This article originally appeared on VICE Sports US.