OK, sure, let’s talk about John Tavares

The Islanders’ superstar center still doesn’t have a contract. The Flyers can afford to offer him one. Let’s daydream a bit.

Before we begin, a quick disclaimer: John Tavares is almost certainly not going to play for the Philadelphia Flyers next season or in any other season of his career. What follows this paragraph is almost exclusively wishful thinking and dangerous conjecture.

OK, we got that out of the way? Cool, let’s daydream.

One of the Flyers’ New York-based trio of rivals made some news last week, as the New York Islanders fired general manager Garth Snow and head coach Doug Weight. Snow had been running the team since 2006, and for the most part had accomplished very little in that time (the Isles won one playoff series during Snow’s 12-year tenure). Weight, meanwhile, had just completed his first full season as Islanders head coach; he had been an assistant with the team since 2011, and became interim head coach in the previous year when Jack Capuano was fired mid-season.

This house-cleaning comes about two months after a(nother) disappointing season for the Isles, and about two weeks after former Devils and Maple Leafs general manager Lou Lamoriello took over as head of Islanders hockey operations. The move can reasonably be seen as Lamoriello’s first step in trying to bring in “his guys” as he attempts to get the team back on track.

But with due respect to all of that, the question that most of the rest of the hockey world is wondering about now is how this move effects the Islanders’ franchise player, star center John Tavares, as he approaches unrestricted free agency on July 1.

Tavares, who turns 28 in September, is one of the best players in hockey. It is almost unheard of for players of his ability and status to reach unrestricted free agency in this day and age. The biggest-name players to reach free agency in this decade are likely Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, both of whom hit the market in 2012 before signing with Minnesota, and neither of them (with due respect to their outstanding careers) stacks up to Tavares. (The closest recent comparable to this situation is probably that of Steven Stamkos, who made it all the way to June 29, 2016 — two days before reaching free agency — at which point he re-signed with the Tampa Bay Lightning.)

If he does leave Brooklyn (and as we’ll discuss, that’s still a biiiiiiiiig if), Tavares’ presence alone would meaningfully elevate whichever team he ends up on. A middling team could become a contender, a good team can become a legit Cup favorite, and so on. It would be almost irresponsible for any team with the room to make a move for Tavares to not try and do so.

And one team that has the room to get him is your very own Philadelphia Flyers. With that, let’s run through this whole situation from a Flyers fan’s perspective.

So is Tavares actually going to leave the Islanders? Like you said, guys like this basically never hit free agency.

They don’t, because hockey is no fun. So it goes. And to his and the Islanders’ credit (and as our friends at Lighthouse Hockey have cataloged in absolutely painstaking detail over the past couple of years), Tavares has repeatedly said that he’s enjoyed his time with the team, and for all of the rumors out there now about what may happen, essentially no one of significance has suggested that he’s definitely not returning to Brooklyn.

But the fact remains that we’re now less than a month out from free agency, and about two weeks away from the window in which teams can contact free agents on other teams (without reaching an agreement on them), and there have been no signs that a deal is imminent. An increasing number of reports (the aforementioned Lighthouse Hockey chronicles have pretty much all of them) are suggesting that Tavares is likely to go unsigned until that window comes around on June 25. The closer we get to July 1, the more that John Tavares, Non-New York Islander seems like a realistic possibility.

Do last week’s firings in New York inform that possibility in either direction? Who really knows. There are (extremely unconfirmed) suggestions out of Toronto that Tavares wanted the team to keep Weight around and will likely leave now that he’s gone, but those should be taken with a large portion of salt.

Common logic, meanwhile, suggests that the Isles wouldn’t have done what they did today if they had a feeling that it would meaningfully and adversely effect their chances at keeping their superstar around. The Islanders will, in all likelihood, do anything to keep Tavares. It would be absolutely devastating to their franchise to lose him. In this sense, it was unsurprising to learn last week that Lamoriello and Tavares’ agent, Pat Brisson, have been “in near daily contact since Lamoriello took over”.

One has to reasonably believe that Lamoriello and co. know more about every involved party’s motivations than us commoners do in this situation. Unless the Isles’ new brass is truly prepared to blow it up and hope that someday they find another player who might be almost as good as John Tavares, we should probably work under the assumption that they’re making moves that are, at the very least, not actively going up against Tavares’ desires. If firing Weight and/or Snow was going to anger Tavares, you have to think that they’d have held off on doing so for at least a month or so until this situation was resolved either way. (Lamoriello, for what it’s worth, has denied that Tavares’ status played a role in last week’s moves. I’m skeptical of that claim, if these two paragraphs weren’t enough indication, but it should still be noted.)

So I guess the answer here is this: it’s clearly possible that Tavares is going to leave the Islanders. This wouldn’t have dragged out this long if his return was a sure thing, and the Isles wouldn’t be pushing this hard at this point to get it done if they were that confident that it would. There’s enough of a funny smell here that, if we’re not calling the fire department, we should at least call the local non-emergency number.

But, with all of that said: there’s no information out there suggesting that the Isles are out of the running, franchise players tend to stay with their teams, and as we saw with Stamkos a couple of years ago, these things can get resolved last-minute. Of all of the possible timelines in front of us, I don’t know if I’d guess that a majority of them have Tavares returning to Brooklyn, but at least a plurality of them probably do, at least until we get some significant information suggesting otherwise.

Now, then …

Are the Flyers interested in Tavares?

Yes. Duh. Of course they are. He’s John Tavares. If the current front office is not at least intrigued by the possibility of a top-10 NHL center still in his prime joining the team, they should all be removed from their positions. I mean, can you imagine a center lineup of Tavares, Sean Couturier, and Nolan Patrick? I imagine Ron Hextall thinks about it every day.

… at least, that’s what common sense would dictate. In terms of actual concrete evidence, here’s the closest we have to that, courtesy of 97.5 The Fanatic’s Jason Myrtetus last Monday afternoon:

This (somewhat awkwardly-worded) tweet contains at least something of a hint from Myrtetus, who works for the team’s flagship station and does interviews with Hextall on occasion, that the Flyers have shown some internal interest in acquiring Tavares. They haven’t been listed in many places publicly as a frontrunner for his services, which is presumably what Myrtetus refers to when he says that the “interest level is much higher than many think”. Perhaps he’s received some hints that Tavares is more than just something the Flyers are interested in by default, and is instead something that they’re actively looking into. Who knows; it’s tough to say with confidence when this is all we’ve seen.

But let’s say that the Flyers are truly interested. From there …

Do they have the room to bring him in?

In terms of cap room? It certainly appears that they do, at least in the short-term. The Flyers, courtesy of CapFriendly, have a touch over $17 million in cap space, and that’s before the new cap goes into place and increases the upper limit by (at least) $3 million from its current amount. Even if Tavares’ contract moves into the $11 million per year range, which it likely will, the Flyers have the short-term cap room to make a move here, in a summer where the only free agent of much significance that the Flyers have to re-sign is Robert Hagg.

The longer-term cap is a bit tougher to know for sure, and it’s a fair question to ask. Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek will each be making north of $8 million per year for the next four and six seasons, respectively. Sean Couturier and Shayne Gostisbehere are also both locked up long-term, though they’ve both got fantastic deals against the salary cap in place for the next four and five years. Some other big decisions may be coming in the near future for the likes of Wayne Simmonds, Ivan Provorov, and Travises Konecny and Sanheim.

This is where you have to hope that having a number of talented young players still in their team-controlled years will pay off, and where you have to simply hope that the Flyers can continue what’s been a pretty solid run of drafting since Hextall arrived. If you’re confident in your team’s ability to find competent, inexpensive depth, then you should be willing to take advantage of the surplus cap room that said inexpensive depth would provide and use it to pay for legitimate star talent. Will it be easy? Probably not. But there’s no easy way to build a contender, and if you’ve got to spend money to do it, you may as well spend that money on one of the best players in hockey.

What about roster room? Are you worried that this is going to block—

I’m gonna stop you right there. Yes, the Flyers have some good prospects and young players who would have a tougher time finding a job if the team signed John Tavares. No, that is not a good enough reason to not sign John Tavares. This is the guy you make room for, not the guy whose presence makes you worry about having room for others.

It would take a truly elite, near-generational player to make you earnestly ask the question “should we worry about what bringing in John Tavares will do for him?”. The Flyers, with due respect to their impressive cadre of young talent, don’t have that. Nolan Patrick is an exciting young center who is probably never going to be as good as John Tavares. Sean Couturier just had by far the best year of his seven-year NHL career, and it was maybe on par with what John Tavares would consider an average season. And the team’s best center prospect, Morgan Frost, is a top-30 NHL prospect — someone you ideally want to have room for, but not someone you plan around, so to speak.

Elite talent becomes available so, so rarely. If you have the room to add it without giving up assets, you go for it and worry about the ramifications later. Full stop.

This all sounds great to me.

I mean, it should. That’s the point.

Except …

Here it comes.

Would John Tavares really want to come to the Flyers?

And there’s the question that could render everything else written here moot.

Pretty much any team with cap space is going to at least casually kick around the idea of giving Tavares’ agent a call around July 1. And if the cap does rise to $80 million or so, as it’s expected to, then a healthy majority of NHL teams are at least theoretically going to have that opportunity. And even the ones who won’t could make some moves to try and do so — San Jose, for instance, is frequently mentioned as a top contender for Tavares if he reaches free agency, even though they’re pressed pretty close against the cap as they currently stand.

If 20 to 25 other teams are going to be able to offer Tavares a deal, it’s fair to ask if the Flyers can make a pitch to him that’s as enticing as everyone else’s. How enviable is whatever the Flyers have to offer, compared to everyone else’s pitch? It’s tough to say. On the one hand, this team hasn’t won a playoff series since 2012 and was painfully average last season. Will Tavares really find that more appealing than any of the legitimate contenders vying for his services? On the other hand, the Flyers can offer Tavares the chance to play on the same line as a guy who just topped 100 points last year (Claude Giroux, of course). Not many teams are going to be able to say that.

Tavares, of course, is familiar with the Flyers, having played against them multiple times a year for his entire career. On the most recent 31 Thoughts podcast at Sportsnet, they wondered if that familiarity may work against the likes of the Flyers and Rangers, if Tavares would want to avoid staying a little too close to his old home and essentially burning the bridge from Brooklyn behind him.

All in all, it’s tough to say what the Flyers’ chances are without any real indications of what Tavares is prioritizing in potentially finding a new suitor. It may just come down to Ron Hextall throwing a hell of a pitch about the future of this team to Tavares, because there are going to be a lot of options for him, and if the money ends up being similar across most offers, it’s tough to see what the Flyers can do to give themselves an edge.

Buzzkill.

Hey, we were all having fun over here until you asked.

So what’s the most likely outcome here?

Assuming Tavares at least reaches the “legal tampering” window prior to free agency, Hextall will probably at least give Pat Brisson a call to see where Tavares’ head is at about possibly moving a couple hours down I-95 South. Hopefully, more comes of it than just a call. But with the number of competitors for his services that there will inevitably be, the safe bet until we hear anything to the contrary is that Tavares is most likely not going to be a Flyer next season, whether that means he stays in Brooklyn or goes elsewhere.

But it’s fun to wonder, isn’t it?

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