The biggest drama surrounding the Islanders' visit to Toronto on Thursday may not be the game itself, but those five minutes when John Tavares faces another round of interrogation from the largest and peskiest press corps in the NHL.
Tavares will handle the Toronto media like the gentleman he was raised to be, but there will be plenty left unsaid. For example:
- It's almost a certainty that Tavares will go the Steven Stamkos route, and exercise his right to speak with other NHL franchises when the "listening" period for unrestricted free agents opens in late June.
- While the return to part-time play at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum is wonderful, there are the bad optics and awkwardness of playing the next three seasons in two home arenas - with 29 games in 2018-19 as lame duck tenants in Brooklyn. Neither are NHL-caliber venues.
- At the earliest, the Islanders' new arena in Elmont will not open until the fourth season of the expected eight-year contract he would sign to stay with the franchise.
Tavares has always said the right things, going back to when a few Canadian reporters refused to believe he'd sign with the Islanders if they drafted him first overall in 2009. He will again on Thursday.
Assuming Coach Doug (I Thought We Played a Good Game Besides Hickey's Cough-up, Three Guys Behind the Goal for the Back-breaker, and Those Other Three We Conceded in Four Minutes) Weight does not make the morning skate an optional, Tavares will face the music around noon on Thursday. If he doesn't skate in the morning, he will speak postgame. Either way, expect him to make the following points:
- The Islanders' three-month struggle after a good start to this season has not dimmed his view of the franchise.
- He has not thought for a second about moving to another team. His focus is only on the Islanders.
- The return to play some games at the Coliseum over the next few years is awesome. The deal for an Islanders arena in Elmont is cause for celebration.
- He has overheard talk of protest billboards in Brooklyn but doesn't pay it any mind. Garth Snow has been very good to him and is the reason every player on the roster is on the club.
- Despite having just four goals and three assists in the last 13 games over the last month, his potential free agency has not been a distraction for him.
And he'll mean every word of it.
Assuming the Islanders have not veered from their refusal to consider offers for him before the trade deadline, that's how Tavares interviews will play out for the rest of the season.
Even the most intense supporters of the Islanders would understand if Tavares at least listened to other teams in the days before July 1, as Stamkos did before re-signing in Tampa Bay. This next contract will cover the prime of his career and, presumably, the next 7-8 years of his life. Behind a decade of Snow's ineptitude, the Islanders have been stuck in a race for a wild card in the best of the captain's nine seasons.
They have given Tavares few reasons to pledge his undying loyalty a second time, but there is still hope. Despite the Islanders' season-long defensive follies, the ascension of rookie Mathew Barzal as a potential long-term star undoubtedly enhances the outlook for Tavares. He also has deep loyalty to the franchise that drafted him, and loves living on Long Island.
According to a source close to Tavares, his first choice remains to stay with the team. In fact, it says everything about the captain's dedication that some NHL insiders believe the Islanders' collapse this season could result in Tavares signing up for more. "Unfinished business," and all that.
As wild as that may sound, don't discount it. Tavares is a unique breed. Almost every NHL player in his situation would direct his agent to maneuver for a trade this month. Not this guy.
Which is why, once again, he'll stand tall on Thursday, and tell the Toronto media of his pride in being an Islander.