The photo featured a young Tavares in bed, fast asleep on a pillowcase and under a blanket adorned with Maple Leafs logos, and accompanied by a note that read: “Not everyday you can live a childhood dream.”
In bidding farewell to the New York Islanders, where he was the captain and face of the franchise since being drafted with the No. 1 pick in 2009, Tavares chose Toronto and agreed to a seven-year, $77 million contract about an hour after the NHL’s free-agency signing period opened on Sunday. The skilled center was considered one of the biggest prizes on the market.
The 27-year-old Tavares spent last week assessing offers from with the Islanders, San Jose, Toronto, Dallas, Tampa Bay and Boston. By waiting until Sunday, Tavares gave up the opportunity to sign an eight-year extension with the Islanders. Tavares called his decision the toughest of his life in choosing between staying in New York or taking “a calculated leap of faith into an opportunity I believe will be special to me and my family.”
“The island, the fans, the organization, my teammates will always be special to me and my family,” he wrote. “But it’s time to live my childhood dream here in Toronto.”
Tavares’ average annual salary of $11 million per season is the highest signed by a free agent since the NHL introduced the salary cap in 2005. And his signing offsets the Maple Leafs losing forward James van Riemsdyk, who left in free agency to sign a five-year, $35 million contract to return to Philadelphia.
Van Riemsdyk is a five-time 20-goal scorer who spent his first three NHL seasons with the Flyers before being traded to Toronto in 2012. The 6-foot-3, 217-pound left wing provides the Flyers with more scoring punch on the power play and could be a long-term replacement for Wayne Simmonds, who has one year left on his contract. Toronto also lost center Tyler Bozak, who signed a three-year, $15 million contract with St. Louis.
There was plenty of moves around the league, including the Vegas Golden Knights signing forward Paul Stastny to a three-year, $19.5 million contract, though the Stanley Cup finalist lost free agent forward Dave Perron, who returned to St. Louis for a four-year, $16 million deal.
Veteran defenseman Jack Johnson is heading to Pittsburgh after agreeing to a five-year, $16.25 million contract. The 31-year-old Johnson is a 12-year NHL veteran, who spent the past six-plus seasons with the Columbus Blue Jackets.
The Chicago Blackhawks made a splash by signing former Carolina starting goalie Cam Ward, forward Chris Kunitz and defenseman Brandon Manning. Ward provides the Blackhawks veteran insurance after starter Corey Crawford missed most of last season with an upper-body injury.
Tavares’ signing has the potential of turning the hockey world on its head, especially in the Eastern Conference.
He joins a young, talented group that already features Auston Matthews, the 2016 draft’s No. 1 pick, a veteran presence in Patrick Marleau and a top coach in Mike Babcock.
The Leafs, who haven’t won a championship since their last Stanley Cup Final appearance in 1967, have made strides in three years since Babcock’s arrival. Toronto has made the playoffs in each of the past two seasons, after qualifying just once in the previous 11. And yet, they’ve not advanced past the first round since 2004.
The Islanders experienced struggles even with Tavares by qualifying for the playoffs just three times in nine seasons.
Now they face a daunting uphill climb minus their unquestioned leader and point-a-game producer.
In a bid to retain Tavares, the team underwent an organizational makeover in recent months. They hired Lou Lamoriello as president of hockey operations and fresh Stanley Cup winner Barry Trotz as coach.
“The New York Islanders would like to thank John Tavares for everything he has done for the franchise throughout his nine seasons,” Lamoriello said in a statement released by the Islanders.
“We wish him and his family all the best.”
Other notable deals:
—The Colorado Avalanche added two former Columbus Blue Jackets in signing defenseman Ian Cole and forward Matt Calvert to three-year deals. Cole gets $12.75 million and Calvert gets $8.4 million.
—The Buffalo Sabres filled a need at goaltender by signing former St. Louis Blues backup Carter Hutton to a three-year, $8.25 million deal. Hutton will share the starting duties with Linus Ullmark, who is pegged to make the jump to Buffalo after three seasons in the minors.
— Detroit agreed to sign goalie Jonathan Bernier and Thomas Vanek. The 29-year-old Bernier signed a three-year contract after going 19-13-3 in 37 games with the Colorado Avalanche. Vanek signed a one-year, $3 million contract to return to the Red Wings, where he spent a portion of the 2016-17 season. Vanek opened last season with Vancouver and closed it in Columbus.
—The Arizona Coyotes signed All-Star defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson to an eight-year contract extension that averages $8.25 million per year.
—The San Jose Sharks announced a $64 million, eight-year extension with center Logan Couture.
—The Lightning signed defenseman Ryan McDonagh to a seven-year, $47.25 million extension, which kicks in next summer.
—The New York Rangers agreed to sign restricted free-agent forward Vladislav Namestnikov to a two-year, $8 million deal.
By JOHN WAWROW by Associated Press