When John Tavares signed his seven-year, $77-million contract on July 1, 2018, fans across the nation were ecstatic. The Leafs landed the biggest fish in free agency that year. The “rebuild” phase of the team’s ascent from the ashes of the old regime was over, the team now had bonafide superstars, plural, and were poised to become contenders.
Now, three seasons and a pretty significant shift in the status quo of the planet Earth later, a small but growing and very vocal minority of the fanbase want to get rid of the team’s captain. Some of their main arguments against Tavares and his contract being that “he’s not worth $11 million per season,” “they didn’t need another scoring forward,” and “it’s too much for a player who’s already past his prime.”
And the people saying these things are objectively wrong.
Let’s start with the obvious: as a Maple Leaf, Tavares has 92 goals and 198 total points in 201 regular season games. He is quite literally just under a point per game and has been top three in team scoring during each of his seasons with the team. This is not a player who is past his prime with an untradeable albatross of a contract, he is still very much so an elite player in this league and his style of play is one that should age gracefully.
Let’s take a look at this clip:
This is John Tavares’ game, in a nutshell, it’s subtle and finesse, every move is deliberate, drawing the attention of defending players and opening up the ice for his linemates, be it Josh Bailey, William Nylander, or whoever he may be partnered up with for this upcoming season.
“But that was years ago! He’s so much slower now!” The naysayers will shout, well, let’s take a look at another video clip (it should start at around 1 minute, 48 seconds)
Here we see a moment from this past season of Tavares effectively deking around 4 Winnipeg defenders, again drawing in that attention and allowing Nylander to fly in off the wing and score. He’s not speeding down the ice and zooming past the defenders, he’s showcasing his precise hand-eye coordination and elite hockey IQ. Throughout his entire career, Tavares has never been the fastest skater, he’s made his career off of plays just like this- deliberate and well thought out plays that more often than not end up in the back of the net.
Just as Jason Spezza is making a late-career resurgence and outperforming the standards of a 4th-liner in the NHL with his hockey IQ and hands, Tavares is outperforming the average 2nd-line center and should continue to stay in the 70-point range for several more seasons, utilizing his strengths as an extremely smart player.
That’s not to say he’s perfect and everything is fine, his scoring pace has dropped in recent seasons, although most of that can be attributed to a finger injury early in the 19-20 season that lingered for longer than it should have and then taking a defence-first approach for much of last season.
As Tavares ages, he will inevitably get slower and probably have to transition to the wing towards the end of the contract, but as stated above, hockey IQ and hand-eye coordination (especially in an elite puck-handler like Tavares) are not skills that vanish from a player’s toolbox in a hurry, it’s not like Tavares is going to wake up some morning this season and suddenly be past his prime and look completely out of his element playing too high up in the lineup (as we saw with Joe Thornton at times last season.)
The final myth to bust is the contract itself. Comments have been made that Tavares “makes too much and should be in the $8-$9-million range, not $11-million, Dubas handcuffed the team.” There are grains of truth to those sentiments, but only in the context of the flat-cap world that we know now. Keep in mind that Tavares was a free agent signing, he was signed at the absolute apex of his value as a player, coming off one of the best seasons of his career. And at $11-million per season, Toronto actually got him at a discount, the Leafs were one of six teams in the bidding for the center’s services, and it is public knowledge that the San Jose Sharks offered him $13-million per season, but he still chose to take less to come to the Leafs.
No one in the world, much less anyone in the Leafs front office, expected the world to be ravaged by a pandemic a season and a half after signing Tavares, and obviously, no one wanted a flat salary cap. Before the pandemic, the NHL was slowly but surely growing in a financial sense, average player salaries were elevating higher and higher with each free-agency period because the cap was anticipated to rise by millions over a few seasons as Vegas began adding revenue to the league’s coffers and Seattle made their debut, the cap could have gone up by close to (if not more than) $10-million.
Those anticipated raises no doubt factored into the decision to offer the contract: pay Tavares what he is worth, accept that the salary cap situation will be tight for a season or two, but it will eventually open up as the cap rises. Unfortunately, our reality now is not the same one it was two years ago, and while that line of thinking was an ironclad plan, it is now one that fans cast doubt on, but it is unfair and short-sighted to lambaste Tavares as a player and his contribution to this team simply because the world went through a near-apocalyptic event.
So with all of that said, it is time to stop the slander. John Tavares is (and will continue to be) an elite NHL player, John Tavares is a Leaf, John Tavares is the Leafs captain, and he will lead them to brighter days ahead.