By Jeff Capellini, CBSNewYork/WFAN.com
NEW YORK (WFAN) — The words flowed like the lyrics of your favorite song.
“I believe in this organization and this hockey team.”
John Tavares issued that battle cry on Thursday right after signing a new six-year, $33-million extension with the Islanders.
The Islanders you say? The same team that may be playing elsewhere midway through the contract? The same team that hasn’t won a playoff series since 1993? The same team that has been unable to attract a high-priced free agent to the Island for years?
Yes, the Islanders. That same team.
Tavares gets it, even if 99 percent of people don’t. The Islanders may be young and inexperienced. Their fans may get ridiculed by the hour. Their home town may not want them anymore. But the fact of the matter is when the face of the franchise says “yes,” even when all the conventional wisdom in the world suggests he should say “no,” it should tell you something.
He simply loves Long Island. He thinks a hell of a lot more highly about the jobs Charles Wang and Garth Snow have done building a potential winner than nearly all of the people that shape the NHL’s off-ice narrative — be them reporters, columnists, social media junkies or rabid hockey fans who seem to have a high opinion of their opinions and think everything the Islanders do is made of aluminum instead of platinum.
Is Tavares crazy? Hardly. As I like to say, he’s Canadian. He’s polite, loyal and one hell of a hockey player. He wants to see this thing through. He wants to win a Stanley Cup for the franchise that put its faith in him. You have to just love a player like that. You have no choice but to respect a player like that.
Now I understand signing the extension was really his best option, considering his circumstances as a player light years from unrestricted free agency. I say that because if his entry level contract had expired after the 2011-12 season he would have remained Islanders property. They would have controlled his rights for a few more years and likely would have gone a few painful rounds in arbitration. This is a win for everyone involved with the team. The Islanders have their star locked up until he’s around 27 at a very fair rate. The cap hit is just $5.5 million. Tavares will only lose one true year to test the free agency waters unabated.
But why do I think that day will never come? I’ll tell you why.
The signing was the third step of a process to keep the stars aligned on Long Island. Having re-signed Michael Grabner, Kyle Okposo and now Tavares, players no NHL team in its right mind would pass up, to long-term deals sends a message loud and clear to the hockey world: the Islanders will pay you if you’d only seriously consider them.
And consider them players likely will because the rebuild is, for all intents and purposes, complete. Yes, this team has holes. But they have the personnel to fill those holes. They have a serious offense where there wasn’t one for years. They have young defensemen who will knock your head off and play responsibly in their own end. They have a slew of representative goaltenders. They have a GM who has changed the public opinion of himself basically overnight as far as the NHL calendar goes, and have an owner, who, despite his reputation as a guy who knows little about the game, takes personal financial risks in a sea of red ink to put the best possible team he can out on the ice.
If you want to kill the Islanders, that’s your right. But if you don’t buy into what they have done by stockpiling draft pick after draft pick in building the farm system into one of the best in the NHL, plucking bargain basement talent (see Matt Moulson, Grabner and Al Montoya) out of the league’s trash only to turn it into desired commodities, signing and trading for key role players and, now, extending the deals of their best players, you’re just hopeless, someone who in all likelihood piles on because it’s en vogue to pile on.
Tavares went from 54 points his rookie season to 67 last season. He’s on the cusp of being that 40-goal, 90-point star the NHL doesn’t see with much regularity anymore. He’s on the fast track to one day have his number hanging from the rafters, wherever that arena ends up being. He will one day be the captain of this club. He speaks without even a hint of himself. He’s all about the team and the community.
He is, in a sense, a 21-year-old role model for every last kid who dreams of making it to the best hockey league on Earth.
It’s now time for the rest of us to pay attention to the Islanders. Forget about what goes on off the ice. The arena issues are no one’s concern right now but Wang’s, and in due time he will address it again. In the interim, people need to stop pretending they know everything about the Islanders, cease assuming just because this franchise tried something it will ultimately fail.
Only what goes on on the ice matters. I wish more people would understand that. Not having a new arena has no bearing on the direction this team will go, considering the comradery these players share, the belief they have in the mission and the support they get from their loyalists, who believe in many instances that they are right out on the ice with the players.
Signing Tavares long-term was yet another masterstroke of brilliance by the once back-up goaltender who took his lumps for being dragooned into becoming a GM. Snow has repeatedly kicked his detractors to the curb and now is in position to put his hat back on his head instead of holding it in his hands at the door of the high-powered and almighty.
To say the Islanders will be a force to be reckoned with may not be fair, not yet. But they are coming.
And when they get to where they believe they will get, the diehard fans can sit next to the long line in front of the velvet rope and decide who gets to come in and join what could very well become one of the best stories of a turnaround professional sports has ever seen.
Read more columns by Jeff Capellini
Are you starting to believe the Islanders are no longer the joke many people think of them as? Please offer your thoughts in the comments section below.