Thursday, February 28th, 2019. A date many New York Islanders fans circled on their calendars last summer. What makes this such a noteworthy day is the return of former franchise Centre and team captain John Tavares. The issue many around the hockey world have had with this reaction is the motive behind it. What should be an opportunity to thank the former Captain for his service is shaping up to be a night full of boos inside Nassau Coliseum. Reflecting on John Tavares tenure as an Islander, his criticism amongst his former fans feels unfair.
John Tavares Criticism Misguided
Since leaving as an unrestricted free agent last summer to join his hometown Toronto Maple Leafs, Tavares has been public enemy number one amongst Islanders fans. With that said, the backlash from Islanders fans has not been more extreme than it was in News 12 Long Island’s “Dear John” video released today:
This Video From A News Station On Long Island About John Tavares Is The Most Cringeworthy Video On The Internet https://t.co/PyUVh3UIOT
— Spittin' Chiclets (@spittinchiclets) February 26, 2019
As Barstool sports popular hockey podcast “Spittin’ Chiclets” states, this is not a good look for Isles fans. This hatred and anger feels misguided from the outside looking in.
Ownership/Front Office To Blame
As Vice Sports’ Dave Lozo first pointed out last summer, Islanders fans should be putting the blame on the team itself. With no signs of a contract extension coming, management decided against trading Tavares at last year’s trade deadline. As TSN’s Darren Dreger suggested last February, Tavares was already looking to test free agency in the upcoming summer. Having taken a significant pay cut to stay in New York after his entry-level deal, management did little to build a strong team around him.
Considering the team had won only a single playoff series in his time in Long Island, Tavares’ thinking made perfect sense. To a team who he’d already made sacrifices for without anything in return, he owed nothing. With the current captain, Anders Lee set to become an unrestricted free agent this summer, management has yet to secure a deal. For the sake of the Islanders faithful, hopefully the front office can get this one right.
Negative Attention Overshadowing Teams Success
After the departure of John Tavares, expectations on Long Island were low coming into the 2018/19 season. Thanks to some tremendous goaltending and solid defensive play, the team currently sits atop the Metropolitan division.
How dump and chase hockey and mitigating neutral zone risk is paying dividends for the Islanders, the top defensive team in hockey.https://t.co/JCHBbn0hb5
— Mike Kelly (@MikeKellyNHL) February 19, 2019
As the NHL Network’s Mike Kelly notes, analytics have the Islanders as the top defensive team league wide. Bringing in head coach Barry Trotz as well as losing their go-to guy has lead to a drastic change in playing style. As the Toronto Sun’s Michael Traikos claims, losing Tavares has forced the Isles to become “more of a team”. Goaltenders Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss have split starting honours almost down the middle (34 and 31 starts respectively). Mathew Barzal currently leads the team with a modest 51 points through 61 games. The current Islanders effectively embody what an all-around team looks like.
Despite all these positives, the biggest headlines out of New York this season have been negative. Many fans appear to be wrapped up in suggesting Tavares’ departure was an addition by subtraction. Between the comeback story of Robin Lehner and the repeated success of sophomore forward Mathew Barzal, the fans have no shortage of players to cheer for. Perhaps to garner the positive attention the current team deserves, fans should refrain from living in the past.
Tavares’ Move To Toronto Done Graciously
Perhaps the most controversial part of Tavares’ decision to sign with the Leafs, was the letter he wrote to Isles fans shortly after. Tavares took to The Players Tribune to help explain his thought process in moving on. For some Islanders fans, it was this gesture that made his decision unforgivable. Deemed as a “it’s not you, it’s me” breakup letter, many deemed it unnecessary. Conversely, from the outside looking in, it felt like the honest feelings of a man who had made a difficult decision.
As Tavares shared with TSN’s Mark Masters earlier today, he still has nothing but positive memories of Long Island:
John Tavares on his #Isles legacy:
"I really embraced being an Islander. I loved it. I never didn't enjoy my time there even when times weren't going well … I did everything I could to help the team … I gave it everything I had …"https://t.co/TmSVu8hpgy
— Mark Masters (@markhmasters) February 26, 2019
Former Maple Leafs and current Islanders general manager Lou Lamoriello echoed Tavares’ perceptions on his time in New York earlier today:
"He had every right to make the decision he did…I hope [the booing] is re-thought. I hope it’s the respect he should be getting…[He's] a quality human being who served his years here extremely well and I hope that’s taken into consideration." – Lamoriello on Tavares
— Laura Albanese (@AlbaneseLaura) February 26, 2019
The lack of animosity between player and front office leaves fans with little to cite for their negative perception of Tavares. Having made nothing but positive comments about his former team, his “traitor” label feels baseless.
The Human Element Of The Decision
Every kid who plays hockey grows up dreaming of winning the Stanley Cup. With too much pressure put solely on his shoulders in New York, that dream looked to be a longshot. This is not the NBA. It takes more than one superstar to win a championship (look no further than McDavid and Edmonton). At the end of the day, Tavares’ Toronto roots can’t be overlooked. Growing up a Leafs fan, the opportunity to join the team was one he couldn’t pass up. Adding Tavares to a deep core of players in Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander etc. makes Toronto a legitimate cup contender.
Although Tavares’ chose to move on, his contributions to the Islanders franchise should not be forgotten. Having given his all for nine dedicated seasons in New York, Tavares earned the right to consider his future. Given the opportunity to take your dream job in your own city, any level-headed person would surely accept. In the chance to play for the Toronto Maple Leafs, John Tavares graciously accepted.
Not everyday you can live a childhood dream pic.twitter.com/YUTKdfMALl
— John Tavares (@91Tavares) July 1, 2018