Look, we tend to give television analysts and paper writers (“MSM”) a lot of flak for their hockey opinions in this space, and I’m sure Craig Button at TSN has been on the other end of that a few times. But recently Button weighed in on the potential Tavares-to-Toronto scenario – one that could could start to snowball as a rumour this season and into next July when Tavares hits the open free agent market. And you know what? I think he has a pretty solid point.
The segment is over here at TSN.ca, but the long-and-short of it is that Tavares could sign with the Leafs next summer for just one year, thus giving them essentially a super team for the 2018-19 season while still allowing them to be in good shape cap-wise when Matthews, Marner, and Gardiner need contracts after that. In fact, Button almost seems to imply he has a source who believes it’s a real possibility.
But there are problems with this idea, and it can fall apart quite easily.
The key issue with all of this, of course, is that players at Tavares’ stage of their career don’t typically entertain this option. Why? It’s pretty simple: There’s risk involved in signing a short term deal, so locking in for max money and term when you can is the safe “set yourself for life” play.
Hockey players tend to always go this route and very rarely go for short-term maxes like NBA stars smartly take advantage of. That said, for the majority of NHL players who find themselves in this position, playing it safe is probably a no-brainer.
Let’s take a typical top six forward who recently switched teams on the open market at a prime age. In this case we’ll say Milan Lucic. He’s a player that’s always had relatively good boxcar numbers but isn’t among the league’s elite forwards by any means – just a solid 25-25-50 guy or thereabouts. Had he gone the one-year route last summer instead of locking in for seven with the Oilers, the risk of him having a dip in production and the market cooling is maybe not high, but very real.
But I think there are some players that don’t have to worry about that as much, particularly someone as established as an elite center like Tavares.
Let’s frame it like this: We’ll assume Tavares goes to free agency next summer and Toronto (or any team) gets him on a one-year contract. The risk of him not drawing enormous interest the following summer seems nearly non-existent. Even if something worst case played out, and he ended up missing 40 games in 2018-19, like…he’s John Tavares. There will be teams that will go seven years with him the following offseason, without question. And I think this goes for basically any true star in the league, they just don’t go this route often so we don’t have much evidence to draw from.
There is an instance where someone has recently done this though, and Button himself mentioned this in his segment. Marian Hossa – 29-years-old at the time – signed an expensive one-year deal to chase a Cup on Mike Babcock’s 2008-09 Wings team. In doing so, he definitely took on some risk, but ended up having a fantastic season, and then eventually went to Chicago on a 12-year “set for life” deal (and won three championships along the way).
Tavares will be 28-years-old for the 2018-19 season, so his situation is certainly comparable.
But what about numbers? We know that in order to make something like this worthwhile, a team like the Leafs will have to pony up with a monster cap hit since they’re keeping the term down.
For the sake of envisioning that potential roster, let’s say Toronto goes to 12-million with Tavares. We’ll also predict William Nylander is starting the first year of his new deal at 7-million. This can work.
(Via Armchair GM on CapFriendly)
Now, before people get on me about line combos and stuff, let’s remember this is just a quick rundown to show if the Leafs hit on a couple prospects, that this is possible. The total cap hit for that team above (overages not included), with Horton on LTIR, is 72.6-million. The existing cap is 75-million, and that’ll probably climb again, albeit slightly.
So yeah, even with a gargantuan number like 12-million AAV for Johnny T, with the flexibility the Leafs gain from having contracts expire for Bozak, JVR, Lupul, Komarov, and Fehr, they could put together a roster with the hometown hero in the fold. I used Grundstrom, Liljegren, and Dermott in this case because I’d personally bet on them, but this is just to illustrate the Leafs would have to go cheap and/or young to make that bottom six/bottom pairing work. And I mean, we’d kind of expect that to happen anyway with the slew of prospects that’ll be hitting decision time in the next year or so. It could be another combination of names.
Either way, this is a route than players don’t commonly go down, but it isn’t totally without precedent, as we see with the Hossa situation a few years back. I suppose the only true risk is if Tavares suffered a career-ender in that 2018-19 season and couldn’t go forward with his hockey career at all, which is certainly something to think about. But the probability of that is very small, and otherwise I think he could make a one-year pit stop to chase a ring in his hometown and still have a swan song deal on the table afterward.