The New York Islanders appear committed to building a new arena at Belmont Park, but whether or not John Tavares will still be playing for the team if and when that new facility finally opens years from now remains to be seen.
And therein lies the angst for Islanders fans.
Tavares, 27, is in the final season of his contract and as much as the franchise center has repeatedly professed his desire to stay with the club that drafted him first overall in 2009, no extension has been signed in the past three-plus months during which he’s been eligible to do so.
NHL Insider Bob McKenzie, about as steadying an influence as there is in hockey circles when it comes to giving balanced perspectives, waded into the muddy Tavares waters during the latest episode of The TSN Hockey Bobcast.
“Boy oh boy, this is going to be something we’re going to talk about a lot,” began McKenzie in Season 2, Episode 2, which was released on October 7. “And this is going to be something that New York Islanders fans get really agitated about. Because they don’t even want to think about the prospect or the possibility that John Tavares might not be the foundational piece of their franchise for the next eight years.
“Tavares’ contract expires at the end of this season. He’s eligible to be an unrestricted free agent on July 1 and he is eligible, and has been since this past July 2, to sign as long as an eight-year extension with the New York Islanders. The fact that he hasn’t signed it yet has certainly raised eyebrows around the National Hockey League.
“Now, I know John Tavares really well. I think he’s one of the absolute best players in the National Hockey League. He’s also one of the absolute best people. He’s a captain through and through. And I know for a fact that John Tavares is not going to say or do anything at any time to lead anyone to believe that he’s anything but all-in on the New York Islanders. Because he is all-in on this season with the New York Islanders.
“But – and you knew there was a but there – if it was a foregone conclusion that John Tavares was going to sign an eight-year deal with the New York Islanders, it would have been signed by now. And do not confuse that with me saying he’s going to free agency because that’s not what I’m saying. But what I am saying is he could have signed this past summer and he didn’t. And in fact, not only did he not sign this past summer, but to my understanding there has not been what I would call one substantive negotiation involving actual dollar figures between the New York Islanders and John Tavares.
“Now listen, I think John Tavares has a lot of time for the ownership of Scott Malkin and Jon Ledecky, and for the general manager Garth Snow, and I don’t doubt for a moment that John Tavares really enjoys playing hockey for new head coach Doug Weight. I’m not disputing any of that.
“But the New York Islanders are an interesting situation. There are more variables with this New York Islanders team than you usually have in similar type situations. And we’ll use Steven Stamkos as an example. Very similar – Steven Stamkos was going to be an unrestricted free agent. Went into that final year with the Tampa Bay Lightning. And it created an enormous amount of speculation – basically on a day-by-day, week-by-week basis that was a huge distraction all season long. Would Steven Stamkos come back.
“And for the longest time, we all offered our opinions. I said I didn’t think he would. And as it turned out, Steven Stamkos basically got to the doorstep of free agency, looked like he was about to go somewhere else; when suddenly he reversed field and decided to go back to the Tampa Bay Lightning.
“So is it possible that John Tavares could wait until sometime in the future – anytime between now and July 1 – and end up back eight years with the New York Islanders? Yes, that’s possible.
“But the difference between the Stamkos situation and the Tavares situation is that Steven Stamkos knew what building the Tampa Bay Lightning would be playing in for however many years he signed with the team. He knew who his teammates were and had a reasonable idea of what this team is capable of, of having been to a Stanley Cup Final, and had a degree of confidence that this is a team that can contend for the Stanley Cup in his tenure with that organization.
“In the case of John Tavares, all I think he doing right now – and the reason why there haven’t been any specific discussions about an extension – is simply because he wants more information. Where are the New York Islanders going to play. If John Tavares signs an eight-year contract, how many years into it – where are they going to be. Are they going to be in Belmont. If they’re going to be in Belmont, how long before the rink is built and they’re playing in a new facility. What are they doing in the meantime. Is this Islanders team going north this year, or is it going south.
“And those are all factors where if John Tavares just does nothing but dedicate himself to be the best he can be for the New York Islanders, which he’s done every minute that he’s ever been a member of that organization, then having more information makes it easier for him to make a decision.
“And in the meantime, Islanders fans are going to have to get used to the fact that everybody is going to be speculating on the future and there are going to be a bunch of people who say, ‘He’s going to free agency. He’s leaving.’ And a bunch of people who are adamantly on the other side who are going to say, ‘Not a chance in the world. He’s our captain. He’s dedicated. He’s loyal. He’ll stick with us.’
“But the reality is the jury is out. We don’t know. We’re going to have to wait and see and we’ll just take it from there.”