By Peter Schwartz
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It’s really hard when there’s something you want but can’t have.
This is especially true when you’re talking about the Toronto media ever since the Islanders drafted John Tavares first overall in 2009. Right from the start, reporters up north believed the native of the Toronto suburb of Mississauga should have been a Maple Leaf, and they just couldn’t handle that Tavares played for the Islanders.
They had a hard enough time watching Tavares slip on that Islanders jersey in 2009, but then they had to endure J.T. signing a six-year contract extension with the Isles in 2011.
Every time the Islanders play in Toronto — and to a lesser extent when the Maple Leafs come to New York — there have been massive media scrums around the Isles’ captain. There would always seem to be the never-ending questions like, “John, how does it feel to be back home here in Toronto?” or, “John, you’re contract is up in June 2018. Will you be joining the Leafs?”
More of the same is expected Tuesday as the Islanders get set for a big game against the Maple Leafs at the Air Canada Centre.
The focus should be on the fact that the Islanders are just one point behind the Maple Leafs for the second wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference. But there’s no question that Tavares is going to be inundated with questions, pregame and postgame, about his future from the oodles of Toronto reporters. This won’t stop until Tavares puts pen to paper on a contract, either after this season when he’s allowed to sign an extension or next June when he’s a free agent.
But everyone in Toronto needs to stop acting like spoiled brats and that it’s the Maple Leafs’ God-given right to have Tavares on their team. Steven Stamkos had a chance to go home to Ontario but re-upped with the Lightning last summer. All signs point toward that happening with JT and the Islanders, too.
New Islanders owner Jon Ledecky made that clear in July during a meet-and-greet with season ticket holder.
“He’s not going to be a free agent,” Ledecky told the fans at the Barclays Center after he and Scott Malkin took over majority ownership.
Twelve days later, the childish behavior of the Toronto media continued when Tavares was a guest on Sportsnet 590 The Fan and was asked this gem of a question by host Andrew Walker: “What will be your favorite part of playing in Toronto in two years?”
“I would not count on that,” Tavares replied. “I think I’ve shown my commitment, my appreciation and my desire to play on Long Island. I would love for that to continue for the long haul.”
Ouch! That had to hurt Toronto, didn’t it?
The new owners want Tavares to stay, and he wants to stay. Of course, nothing is official until a contract is signed, but it would certainly appear that we’re heading toward a new deal with the Islanders. The team is playing better, and ownership appears to be committed to fixing the uncertainty of where the Islanders’ long-term home will be.
Tavares likes it here and reiterated that to Newsday before the season started.
“I don’t really have any reason to leave, and I think we have a great makeup and a team that can do something special this year,” he said. “I’ve always expressed my love for playing for Long Island. It’s where I started. … It’s all I know in the NHL. The opportunity they’ve given me, I would love to see it all the way through and win a Stanley Cup.”
But it appears as if the people in Toronto still didn’t get the memo.
On Nov. 5, Damien Cox of the Toronto Star continued to blow smoke that the Leafs are still clamoring for Tavares after losing out on Stamkos.
“The next opportunity now looks like the summer of 2018, when John Tavares of the New York Islanders is slated to become a free agent,” Cox wrote. “The lure of playing at home wasn’t enough to land Stamkos. But by the summer of ’18, the Leafs will have a good deal more to offer any 28-year-old star interested in new beginnings.”
Now, it is rare these days for a player to spend an entire career with one team, and there is that temptation for many athletes to eventually sign with a hometown team. To be completely honest, if Tavares was not happy with the Islanders and wanted to leave, that would be his choice and right as a free agent on July 1, 2018.
But at the NHL All-Star Game in Los Angeles last month, Tavares was asked if he would be willing to sign an extension this summer, one year before he’s eligible for free agency.
“Yeah, of course. Yeah, for sure,” he said. “I mean, I’ve always stated how much I enjoy playing on Long Island and the organization, how well they’ve supported me. I’m excited about where the Islanders are headed, and hopefully we can work something out.”
That certainly sounds like a guy who prefers to stay where he is and doesn’t sound like someone who is homesick. So far, Tavares has said all the right things, and you never know what can happen when negotiations start and free agency arrives.
Toronto can dream about Tavares all they want, but it sure sounds like his heart is on Long Island. If I had to guess, Tavares will make that evident again Tuesday when the Toronto scribes and electronic media do their best to try to convince JT to come home.
Don’t forget to follow Pete on Twitter at @pschwartzcbsfan.