Pucks in Deep: John Tavares is a Leaf

by Sam Stockton | 1/7/19 2:30am

Pucks in Deep: John Tavares is a Leaf

I’m guessing you at least caught a glimpse of the picture. Granted, it came out around the time LeBron James signed with the Lakers, so your timeline may have been otherwise occupied. Of course, you might have been in the camp that claimed without supporting evidence, which is to say predicted or perhaps believed, that LeBron’s signing with the Lakers needed only an authorizing signature to be made official well before last July and therefore paid little attention to the formal announcement of the signing. Or perhaps you are a Star Wars fan willing to overlook the letdown that was “The Phantom Menace” whose eyes were drawn to the image by virtue of the model of the sweet Naboo-defending yellow model spacecraft piloted by a young Anakin Skywalker to free the planet from galactic tyranny.

If this lede hasn’t provided you hints sufficient to evoke the particular image I have in mind, I apologize. Please forgive my indulgence; I’ll stop playing around. The picture, which I believe without supporting evidence to be not entirely different from many taken around the same time around the same place, is from the mid-90s somewhere near Toronto. It is of a young boy, lying asleep on a bed with Toronto Maple Leaf sheets with the aforementioned Star Wars model on his pillow above his head. Of course, it is unique from all those other pictures because the sleeping child from the photo is John Tavares,who brought the photo to the public light in the early afternoon of July 1 via Twitter with the caption “Not everyday you can live a childhood dream.”

The National Hockey League’s public relations incompetence differs from that of the National Football League and Major League Baseball in that the NHL does not hold, nor has ever held, television or radio audiences captive across America. On top of that, the average American sports fan does not live in the Greater Toronto Area. As such, said sports fan likely, and quite forgivably, misses the resonance of the words “John Tavares is a Leaf,” recognizing neither the cultural relevance of the franchise nor just how bad it has been for fans of the team for the past 50 years or so. Without this knowledge, the seven-year, $77 million contract may seem pedestrian, or perhaps even embarrassingly meager relative to the other major sports if you consider that it is being signed by a superstar and the richest franchise in the league.

Because of course, what the words “John Tavares is a Leaf” signify is terrifying to every Leafs fan who has suffered wounds ranging from the stunning shot of a devastating postseason loss to the drawn out, indelicate descent into devastation at the hands of regime after regime whose respective five- and 10-year plans scarcely provided so much as a glimmer of hope. Forgive my inclusion of the tawdry details, Leaf fans, but, to stick to atrocities of relatively recent vintage, there was a 3-goal lead in the third period of Game 7 in Boston. And again Leafs fans, forgive me, for I write these words dutifully and self-congratulatorily out of unflinching journalistic obligation. But I must mention that the last time the Leafs won the Cup was 1967, the final season in which the NHL had just six teams. So why then is the Tavares signing, doubtlessly the most notable in the franchise’s history, so concerning to Maple Leafs’ fans?

To begin with, in the wake of a recent rally in Grant Park, a parade down Broad Street, and a now-no longer particularly recent Duck Boat ride, followed by three more to the point that the first one seems to have lost an awful lot of sentimentality and that by the time the last one came around, which was of course only a few months ago, the duck boats themselves have started to seem gluttonous; in the wake of all that, it seems hard to deny that the Maple Leafs’ is the most starved fan base in North American sports. But this alone does not encapsulate the fear induced by Tavares’ signing.

Tavares isn’t the first NHL player with the opportunity to realize a boyhood dream by returning to Toronto. By virtue of Canada’s dominance over the sport and the high population density of the Greater Toronto Area and southern Ontario, seemingly every NHL player grew up cheering for the Leafs. Instead, he is unique in that the opportunity to realize that dream coincides with a period in Leafs’ history in which doing so is actually appealing. Like the other major sports, the NHL ensures that its players cannot hit true free agency for as long as possible, whether through collectively-bargained regulation or the subtler cultivation of a “team-first” culture in players and fans alike, and accordingly many NHLers subscribe to the idyll of spending their entire career with the team that drafted them. And then there is the fact that Toronto represents the most robust media market in the NHL, which of course includes its share of Baylesses and Cowherds. And of course, that other stuff I was talking about earlier, the whole, haven’t won a playoff series since ’04, devastating mediocrity and failure thing.

Because so many players grew up cheering for the Maple Leafs, there have been many recent instances of a premier free agent or potential future free agent being connected to the Leafs based on their childhood fandom. Jeff Carter, Tyler Seguin, Steven Stamkos. None of them chose to actually join the Leafs, and Leaf fans could hardly blame them due to their franchise’s collective state of disarray.

But, as shocking as it may seem, John Tavares joins a Toronto Maple Leafs organization as stable as any around the league. Tavares signed the contract with the Leafs’ wunderkind or boy genius general manager, depending on whether you mean to deride him for the rapidity with which he turned himself from another analytics nerd in glasses to general manager of, and I will stress this again, the franchise subjected to the most punditry in the league at just 31 years old, Kyle Dubas. Under the direction of Dubas and coach Mike Babcock, Tavares joins a forward corps with a legitimate claim to being the league’s best. The homegrown triumvirate of Matthews, Marner and Nylander, all of whom were born in 1996 or later, spearhead a group that has anything you could possibly want from a forward unit. In Matthews, they boast a top-end sniper; in Marner, one of the league’s flashiest playmakers; in Nylander, a beautifully smooth force in transition. Among their depth players, many of whom would garner top-six minutes on a team with ordinary forward depth, they offer shift-altering straight line speed in Kasperi Kapanen, veteran leadership and dependable goal scoring in Patrick Marleau, and, as proves necessary in the loosely-regulated vigilante justice of the playoffs, a pest who can provide offense in Nazem Kadri.

So why exactly is the Tavares signing scary to the largest fan base in the sport? Put differently, why should you care about a picture of a Canadian kid who was into Star Wars and the Leafs and the realization of his improbable dream? Because “John Tavares is a Leaf” holds more elocutionary power than just the announcement of a player acquisition. Instead, it establishes a standard — that over the course of Tavares’ seven-year deal, the Toronto Maple Leafs, the same Toronto Maple Leafs who have blown two third-period, Game 7 leads in Boston in recent memory (Can you believe I almost forgot they did it last year also?), who have never won a championship in league with worse odds than one-in-six — the expectation is that those Toronto Maple Leafs win the Stanley Cup.