July 1st 2018 is a day that will live in infamy for Islander fans. After a full season of promising that we would stay with the Islanders, former captain John Tavares signs with the Toronto Maple Leafs, his hometown team. In doing so, Tavares left the organization that drafted him 1st Overall in 2009 and fans that loved him for a rival team. Worst of all was the fact that he promised to resign all season, so that we wouldn’t trade him at the trade deadline to recoup some assets.
This article isn’t about how John Tavares tried to leave the Islanders for dead and about how morally wrong this move was. No. It’s about how in the 2 years since Tavares signed with the Maple Leafs, the Islanders have outperformed the Leafs, and have done more than they ever did with Tavares. It’s about how the Islanders are better off without him, and the huge mistake both he and Toronto made.
Here’s some more context. Prior to signing with Toronto, the Islanders made some huge front office moves. They signed Barry Trotz to be their Head Coach, after he won the 2018 Stanley Cup, and signed future Hall-of-Famer and 3 time Stanley Cup winner GM Lou Lamoriello to be their Head of Hockey Operations and General Manager. These two moves would prove to be more valuable than Tavares would ever be to the Islanders as an organization.
Heading into the 2018-19 season, winger Anders Lee was announced to be the Islanders next Captain, quickly replacing John Tavares. Despite having Mat Barzal, who had won the Calder in 2018, many sports writers were writing off the Islanders, on the basis of losing their “Franchise Savior” to Free Agency.
But the Opposite happened. Not only were the Islanders competitive, but they were First Place in the Metropolitan Division by February. Consequently, February 28th was another date that was circled on Islander fans calendars. It was the date that John Tavares, or the Snake as Islanders fans so affectionately called him, would return to Long Island.
Boos rattled Nassau Coliseum as Tavares took the ice for warmups. Plastic snakes and old Tavares Jerseys rained from the ceiling as Tavares skated with the Leafs. But the best of the night was yet to come. The Islanders came out flying, piling up goals on Toronto until it was eventually 6-1. At this point, chants of “Who’s your Daddy”, “We don’t need you” and “JT Sucks” were sang throughout the Coli, until the final buzzer. This game was therapeutic for a lot of Islander fans, but the story doesn’t end there.
Fast forward a few months to the 2018-2019 NHL playoffs. The Islanders First Round matchup was with the Pittsburgh Penguins, a team that won back-to-back Stanley Cups in 2016 and 2017. Despite having home-ice advantage, the Islanders were once again looked at as underdogs in this series. Not only did the Islanders win the series, but they swept the Penguins in 4 games, and though they lost in the second round of the playoffs, the Islanders accomplished what took Tavares 7 years to finally do, the Islanders won in just a year after he left. Meanwhile in Toronto, Tavares and the Leafs lost in the First Round.
The Islanders weren’t down after Year 1. They came out flying in the 2019-20 season, with a Franchise-high 17 game point streak, during which they had a 10 game win streak. They were out to prove people wrong once again, though it didn’t come until August.
Both Toronto and the Islanders made the Stanley Cup Qualifiers, a best of five series to make the Round of 16. The 7th Seed Islanders were set to play the 10th seed Florida Panthers, a team that wouldn’t have made the postseason if not for the qualifiers, and 8th Seed Toronto matched up against the 9th Seed Columbus Blue Jackets.
The Islanders quickly bested the Panthers, winning the best of 5 in 4 games. The Leafs, however, were not able to advance, marking the second year in a row that the Islanders outperformed Tavares.
The Islanders are no-doubt a better team without Tavares, but that’s not the point here. The point is that Tavares left for greener pastures, making sure that the Islanders did not recoup any assets, and ended up being outperformed by the team that he left for dead.