The orchestration of the free agency period of John Tavares continues.
As almost everyone has suspected for more than six months, the Islanders were informed today by Pat Brisson that Tavares will participate in meetings with five other teams before the official opening of the unrestricted free agent market on July 1.
The Islanders remain very much in the mix - the slight favorite going into this race, in fact, according to the majority of people around the league I've spoken with over the last two days.
The decision to take part in the (cough, cough) "listening" period should not be a surprise, even in the aftermath of the Islanders' joyful spring with the hiring of Lou Lamoriello and Barry Trotz. This is a carefully managed process by Brisson, the respected co-head of CAA Hockey - the powerful agency out of California that represents Sidney Crosby, Patrick Kane, Anze Kopitar, Mathew Barzal and many of the game's best players.
Until now, Brisson has been a ghost in the Tavares story. But as a reminder, when word was leaked over a week ago that Tavares and the Islanders were speaking regularly, that's because Brisson wanted you to know that. It's important to Tavares that Islanders fans know he is operating in good faith with the organization that means so much to him.
On the other hand, Brisson is conducting this entire symphony. When the hockey world wanted to know Tavares's reaction to the Islanders getting Trotz as head coach, the agent adeptly avoided the discussion. There was no way that he was going to reveal the same day as the Trotz hiring (Thursday) or on the day of the first round of the NHL Draft (Friday) the news that Tavares was going to listen to other teams. It would not have been fair to overshadow the Islanders' significant coup, or one of the NHL's signature events.
Instead, Brisson sent word out through NHL insiders that it was "likely" that Tavares's decision to sign immediately with the Islanders or listen to other teams would be revealed on Saturday - traditionally, the quieter day on draft weekend (the Flames-Hurricanes deal notwithstanding).
That's exactly what happened.
While many observers interpreted a clip of Lamoriello speaking with the media on Thursday as the new boss keeping his poker face while feeling confident Tavares would stay, the more likely truth is that he has known for a few days that Brisson was going to host meetings with other clubs.
Although Lamoriello had (and continues to have) justifiable belief that Tavares will ultimately re-sign with the Islanders, he did not take the job with any such promise or assumption.
The same goes for Barry Trotz. As great as Tavares is, as essential as he is, as big a loss as his departure would be, Lamoriello and Trotz are too accomplished and successful to base career decisions around their hopes for one player. In a departure for the Islanders that we're all just getting used to, Lamoriello came here because owner Scott Malkin made it possible by making proper pitches and opening the wallet. Imagine that!
If Tavares signs elsewhere, Lamoriello and Trotz will give emboldened interviews where they confidently state that they are "moving on" in their mission to make the Islanders champions.
So all that said, for some perspective on the next few days of stomach-rumbling in the Country, let's take a look at the setting:
- Tavares is the most prized unrestricted free agent this year by a landslide, and one of the best to become available in many years. He is a No. 1 center who will turn just 28 when training camp opens. Most attractive of all to bidding teams, he is maintenance-free.
- The NHL Players' Association, and by extension the community of agents, look for superstars like Tavares to do their part to make sure the salary structure is fair. (Trotz can understand this; if his buddy Mike Babcock didn't bust the door open for coaches by getting $50 million from Toronto as a free agent, Trotz doesn't split from the Capitals to make bank from the Islanders).
- The Islanders have had a gratifying last two months, but the previous nine years were pretty bad.
- The Islanders are playing in two home arenas for at least the next three years. (Seriously, at this point, they should just move all the games to Uniondale).
- Tavares has the option to go home to his beloved Toronto Maple Leafs - for less money but with a dream of winning a Stanley Cup in the near future.
- He could be enticed - again, for less money - to join Steven Stamkos on a juggernaut in state-income tax-free Tampa Bay.
- (To be frank, if Dallas is in the mix as has been reported, I don't get what Tavares would see in the Stars).
- Tavares can also consider mega-offers from Boston, San Jose and Las Vegas, three strong teams with cap space.
With some viable, tempting options, it's not like it was difficult for Brisson to convince Tavares that he should at least listen to the plans of other teams.
So over the next few days, Tavares and Brisson are doing the right thing for themselves and the greater good of the NHL Players' Association. But in the end, Tavares's decision will be made solely by him and based on just one factor - what is best for him.