Tavares living up to hype for Leafs with Matthews out

The Toronto Maple Leafs have a lot going on right now, and quite a bit of it is no good.

Auston Matthews‘ bad injury luck continues. The William Nylander contract impasse is dragging on far longer than most of us expected.

Good thing the Maple Leafs won The John Tavares Sweepstakes, then, right?

Thursday presented the latest example of that free-agent gift that keeps giving, as Tavares and the Maple Leafs beat the San Jose Sharks 5-3 in a game that was frequently filling. For some, it was a reminder that Tavares’ transition has been seamless compared to Erik Karlsson‘s growing pains with the Sharks. Such comparisons feel petty, really, when you consider just how joyous Tavares’ run has been so far with the team he rooted for (and slept on bedsheets for) as a child.

Consider that Matthews has last played on Oct. 27. Since then, Tavares has really embraced his role as the clear go-to guy for the Maple Leafs. While he was unable to generate a point in Toronto’s flat loss to the Flames in the first game following Matthews’ injury, Tavares has been trading off being electric and automatic since then.

The talented center managed to generate a point in every November game so far (five goals and five assists for 10 points). Tavares’ goal from Thursday also extended his goal streak to four games.

Sharks coach Peter DeBoer provided praise heading into that Leafs – Sharks game that ended up being prophetic.

“I just love the honesty to his game. He plays both ends of the rink, he wins battles, he goes to the dirty areas of the rink, he makes other people around him better, which you think is everybody in the NHL, but it’s not,” DeBoer said, via Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston. “That’s a short list of guys. You can put a John Tavares with almost anybody and he’s going to make a line go or make those guys better. Joe Thornton has that ability, too.

“He’s just a special player.”

Indeed, Tavares showed that he can score ugly just about as efficiently as he can set up beautiful chances.

Of course, the Maple Leafs aren’t subsisting on Tavares’ shrewd play alone. Morgan Rielly continues to put up highly impressive offensive numbers from the blueline. While the Maple Leafs’ hit-or-miss defense can sometimes hang him out to dry, Frederik Andersen builds a case as an underrated goalie, including making 42 saves against the Sharks in that 5-3 win. Kasperi Kapanen is taking advantage of a long-awaited opportunity to prove himself, and Mitch Marner has been just about as explosive as many expected when it became clear that he’d line up with Tavares. Nazem Kadri is thriving as a second-line center.

Still, Tavares stands out for his consistency and versatility.

” … He’s been a leader,” Rielly told the AP after the Maple Leafs beat the Kings 5-1 on Tuesday. “He’s been a 200-foot player. He’s been putting the puck in the net.”

With respectable-yet-unspectacular possession numbers, it’s true that Tavares stands out most for his offense (23 points, including 12 goals, three of which were game-winners).

Even so, it’s heartening to see that Tavares can carry the Maple Leafs during those stretches where their deadly one-two punch goes down to just one (or, at least, a solid but less spectacular two in Kadri).

Considering a slightly-high 16.9 shooting percentage, perhaps Tavares will cool off during the grind of an 82-game season. So far, he’s living up to the considerable hype … and, besides, Matthews might be back in time to warm things up if Tavares suffers a cold spell.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Couture extension continues Sharks’ summer spree

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The San Jose Sharks aren’t messing around this offseason.

The deal won’t become official until Sunday, but Logan Couture is set to sign an eight-year extension with the Sharks worth $64 million.

The signing could kick off a wild next 24 hours for the Sharks, who are reportedly one of the top teams in the running for unrestricted free agent John Tavares.

The team already locked up forward Evander Kane to a seven-year, $49 million contract earlier this spring, further solidifying a forward contingent that was already in the top half of NHL goal-scoring.

Couture was a big part of that, scoring a career-high 34 times to go along with 61 points in 78 games. He had four goals and eight assists in 12 playoff contests with the Sharks.

The move doesn’t change the cap (currently at $60 million and change) for the Sharks this year as Couture’s extension doesn’t kick in for another year.

The Sharks have two pending restricted free agents still to sign in Tomas Hertl (who is going to get paid) and Chris Tierney and have still yet to sign Joe Thornton, who is a UFA and 39 years old but still coveted by the team.

Couture’s signing should make what Sharks choose to do with their captain Joe Pavelski — who is entering the final year on his five-year, $30 million contract — interesting going forward.

But over the next few hours, what Doug Wilson can do regarding Tavares might just cement him as the best GM in the league this summer.

Getting Tavares, without trying to understate this, would be massive for a team that’s solid up front — with Kane, Couture, Pavelski and Hertl — solid on the backend — with Brent Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic — and with a quality goaltender in the crease in Martin Jones.

Wilson has done a solid job of laying out a good future for Tavares to walk into if he so chooses.

And now we wait to see if Tavares wants to build there.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Isles’ ownership ‘evaluating all aspects’ as Snow, Weight stick around, for now

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EAST MEADOW, N.Y. — Underneath the staircase, just outside the New York Islanders practice facility locker room sat a blue and orange team bag with “SNOW” printed on the ID tag. The bag may have been packed but the general manager who it belongs to is apparently not going anywhere.

On Monday, as the Islanders finished up the second day of exit interviews before beginning their off-season, owner Jon Ledecky sat next to GM Garth Snow and head coach Doug Weight and read from a prepared statement that did not definitively say one way or the other that changes were coming in those positions.

“We are committed to long-term success. Any decisions we make are for the long-term success of our hockey club. We win and lose together as an organization, not as individuals,” said Ledecky. “Missing the playoffs is beyond disappointing. At the same time, we believe we have a strong core of players that will be the basis for our success on the ice. Obviously our definition of long-term success is competing every year for the Stanley Cup and eventually winning a fifth ring. 

“Our season has just ended and as an organization we will be evaluating all aspects of our hockey operations and then we will make decisions based on what is best for the future of our club. I’m not here today to talk about any specific individuals including players coaches and the general manager.

“We believe that it is essential to our success to have a thoughtful evaluation to look at the past and more importantly assess the future of our team on and off the ice.

“As for the past season, as owners, we have failed. We sincerely apologize to our fans. We want to express that our ownership group is totally committed to winning and providing the resources to do just that.”

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

At that point, Ledecky, who spent several nights during the season greeting fans inside Barclays Center and on the Long Island Rail Road, got up and stood in the back of the room and did not take questions as Snow and Weight tried to explain away another disappointing year.

A second straight season without the playoffs, which was derailed by a second half skid and an inability to keep the puck out of their own net, now transitions to a defining summer for the franchise. Captain John Tavares can enter the unrestricted free agent market on July 1, and as of Monday, he hadn’t begun to think about what direction his future will take him.

“This is where I hope to be. I’ve always stated that,” Tavares said. “But obviously I have some time to think about my situation and go from there. I’ve loved it here and people have really embraced me, the team and organization have been first class since I’ve gotten here. Obviously, some great talent and some great things ahead. Definitely a lot of positives and I’ll have to take some time and figure out what I want to do and go from there.”

Tavares has consistently expressed his love for the organization and the Long Island area, but after nine years and three playoff appearances, the lure of moving on to an annual contender remains an option. 

The loyalty factor could come into play, as well. Aside from his affection for the team and area, Snow drafted Tavares first overall in 2009 and the captain spent his first two years in the NHL living with Weight and his family. It’s the only organization he’s ever known and it’s clear both sides have told one another about how much they desire to bring a championship back to Long Island.

“I think they know how bad I want to win and I think I know how bad they want to win,” Tavares said. “I don’t think they’re here not trying to win and trying to do the best they can on a daily basis and give it everything they have, and try to get the most out of our group and continue to have success and have an opportunity on a yearly basis to play for the Stanley Cup. I don’t think that’s any question, their commitment to having a winning team.”

During 16 minutes he and Weight spoke, Snow said he wants to see Tavares “retire as an Islander” five times. There were the usual quotes of wanting to be better next season and putting in effort to not be in the same situation a year from now, but the confidence the fan base has in the leadership of the team has diminished over the last few years, which resulted in billboards being put up in Brooklyn calling for the GMs dismissal in February.

It seems pretty clear that Snow and Weight will be back next season. What more do Ledecky and co-owner Scott Malkin need to evaluate after before deciding to officially retain the pair? The draft and free agency periods are coming up and there’s the Tavares contract situation to sort out. Someone has to be in charge of those things and that’s been Snow’s job for the last 12 years. If you were going to change it, wouldn’t it have happened already?

It’s a crucial off-season for the franchise and with relatively new ownership and a new arena coming, the winning days need to return quickly for the franchise. And for Snow, the work is already underway.

“We’ll go through the process of reviewing the entire organization,” said Snow. “The first part, the exit meeting with the players is step one. Obviously, the draft is the end of June and those meeting will start picking up here in a few weeks to see where we sit with the lottery. It starts again [Tuesday] morning for Doug and myself and that review process.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Josh Bailey uses career season to cash in with $30 million extension

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Be sure to visit NBCOlympics.com and NBC Olympic Talk for full hockey coverage from PyeongChang.

The New York Islanders announced on Friday that they’ve extended one of their most productive forwards.

No, not John Tavares, but rather one of his wingers, Josh Bailey, who inked a six-year deal to stay with the only NHL organization he’s known.

“Josh has become one of the core members of the New York Islanders,” said Islanders president and general manager Garth Snow in a statement. “He has developed within our system for several years and it’s exciting to see him mature into the player we always had confidence he would become. To come into the past few seasons and see Josh set new career highs each year, has been impressive and we’re excited to see him continue to do that with the organization as we move forward.”

Per TSN’s Bob McKenzie, Bailey’s deal is worth $30 million, meaning he’ll carry a $5 million cap hit through the 2023-24 season.

Bailey, 28, in the middle of career year, is third on the Islanders in scoring with 62 points and is second on the team in assists with 47. He does lead them in power play points with 28. A first-round pick in 2008, he probably could have earned a bit more on the open market if he went to unrestricted free agency this summer, but he was clearly willing to take less to stay on Long Island with his family.

This deal could have an affect on what Tavares, who can become a UFA on July 1, decides over the next few months. Bailey has been a regular linemate for the Islanders captain for the last several years and now knowing that he’s locked up until at least 2024 should be good news in the sense of some familiarity going forward. (It must also be nice for Tavares to see one of his wingers being kept after watching Matt Moulson, Thomas Vanek and Kyle Okposo leave through trades/free agency.)

There are a couple of other pending UFA and restricted free agents for Snow to deal with this summer like Brock Nelson, Calvin de Haan and Ryan Pulock, but obviously Tavares is of primary concern. This deal could go a long way to keeping the captain with the organization.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Islanders to return to Nassau Coliseum on part-time basis

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In a unique arrangement, New York governor Andrew Cuomo announced on Monday that beginning next season the New York Islanders will split time between Barclays Center and their old arena, Nassau Coliseum, until a new rink project at Belmont Park is completed.

The deal is expected to last three seasons with the Islanders playing 12 home games at the renovated Coliseum next season and splitting games between Long Island and Brooklyn through the 2020-21 NHL season.

Islanders captain John Tavares, speaking during All-Star Weekend in Tampa, was very happy with the idea of going back home.

From Newsday:

“The Coliseum is a special place. We had an exhibition game there this year and it brought back a lot of great memories. For me, it’s where I started my career, it’s where so many great things have happened. I really haven’t thought about it a whole lot. But I’ve always said the team belongs on Long Island. It’s where the team was born, created its identity . . . If that’s the case, it’s going to be a great opportunity, a great experience to go back there and to relive — and create some more — great history.”

Tavares, of course, is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent this summer and the team’s arena issue was something many speculated would have an impact on his decision whether to re-sign.

“There are a variety of things that have to be upgraded, whether it’s the locker rooms, and training facilities and the like. That’s something we’re in touch with the Islanders on,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said on Saturday. “The Nassau Coliseum has been given a nice refresh in terms of the way it looks, but it’s still the Nassau Coliseum. So anything that may or may not take place there certainly would have to be on a temporary basis.”

There will be plenty of upgrades to the facility before the Islanders set up shop there again, but NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly added it’s “not a long-term facility.” The renovated Coliseum can hold 13,900 for hockey, whereas prior to the upgrades it held close to 17,000.

The Islanders played at Nassau Coliseum until 2015 and have spent the past four seasons in Brooklyn at Barclays Center. Last month, the team won the bid for a new arena project by Belmont Park.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.