When John Tavares decided to pass on signing an extension with the New York Islanders and test free agency, he became the most interesting man in hockey.
NHL stars don’t ordinarily get to that point, and it led to Tavares going home to Toronto to sign a $77 million US, seven-year contract with the Maple Leafs. Fellow players were watching closely, too, and wondering what the long-term impact might be.
“Even if we weren’t directly affiliated with it, it would’ve been interesting to follow because you don’t see it that often,” Islanders winger Anders Lee said. “Who knows if it’s going to set a precedent or not or anything like that.”
The early returns are mixed. Tyler Seguin hopes a long-term deal can get done with the Stars before the regular season begins next month, while Ottawa Senators forward Matt Duchene started wondering about what could be. Seguin said he hasn’t gotten that far to imagine himself in Tavares’ shoes.
“I didn’t look into it really too much because my goal has still been to be a Dallas Star,” Seguin said Friday. “That plan hasn’t changed.”
A lot of times there isn’t a plan yet. While Seguin said there has been positive dialogue between his agent and the Stars in recent days, Duchene hasn’t talked to the Senators about an extension and Ottawa captain Erik Karlsson is the constant subject of trade rumors with one year left on his deal.
Duchene feels better than at the start of previous seasons when he was less than happy in Colorado and didn’t know where he’d be next. Only this time, his uncertainty doesn’t feel so bad after watching Tavares get to free agency and have the chance to pick his destination.
“It gives you something to think about because you want to make the best decision for yourself,” Duchene said. “Sometimes the way a team does things can trigger a different response from the individual and vice versa. It’s not a cookie-cutter thing.”
Tavares understands that. He had to weigh nine years with the Islanders against recent struggles to make the playoffs and the potential offered by teams like the Maple Leafs and Sharks.
His situation was so often compared to that Steven Stamkos — who re-signed with the Tampa Bay Lightning on the eve of free agency in 2016 — that Tavares doesn’t expect Seguin, Duchene or anyone else to feel the same ways he did.
“Once I got through the regular season and kind of decompressing after a while and started kind of getting closer obviously to July 1, I realized that this might be my really only chance to go through something like this and have this opportunity to see what else is out there,” Tavares said. “It obviously led to me making a change. I think it just depends on the type of person and the situation and I guess kind of the optics or the circumstances in that situation.”
Karlsson could go the Tavares route next summer, though any team that deals for him between now and the trade deadline will likely want to lock him up long term. That could be the case for Duchene, too.
Seguin, who last week expressed concerns that a new contract with Dallas wasn’t done yet, is far more likely to sign in the coming weeks in large part because of the talent the Stars have around him and the potential they have to contend. Captain and linemate Jamie Benn is signed through 2024-25 and doesn’t feel like he has to sell Seguin on staying or give him any advice about going through the negotiation process.
“The contract will sort itself out,” Benn said. “People think it’s more complicated than it already is … but he’s earned every amount of money that he’s going to get and he’s well-deserving of it.”
Seguin, Karlsson and Duchene are going to get paid by some team over the next 10 months, as Tavares was. Oilers captain and Art Ross Trophy winner Connor McDavid went the more common route signing the longest-possible deal in Edmonton for the highest average salary in the league, and even he was watching the Tavares saga and came away glad it happened.
“Hockey’s kind of always been the ‘I do what I’m told’ and ‘I kind of go where I’m told’ and whatnot, but he was one of the few guys that took his matters into his own hands and you really respect that,” McDavid said.
“He could’ve signed the security deal and signed a long-term deal or a lot of money and never would’ve thought about it again. But he decided that he wanted to go a different route and live out his childhood dream and play in Toronto and you can’t really blame him for that.”