The opening of the NHL's unrestricted free-agency period came at noon on Sunday, and very shortly thereafter, Maple Leafs players, management and fans received the news they'd hoped to hear: centre John Tavares, the most accomplished player on the open market, decided to join his hometown team, signing a seven-year, $77-million contract to play in Blue and White.
"(I)t's time to live my childhood dream here in Toronto," Tavares said in a tweeted statement to social media that confirmed the speculation on his future. "I'm thrilled to be starting a new chapter of my career and life in Toronto with the @MapleLeafs. I feel very fortunate to come join a team with a great young core and play where I grew up learning and loving the game. I can't wait to get started!"
The free agency courting process began early last week, when Leafs brass, as well as management groups from a handful of other franchises, met with Tavares and his agents in Los Angeles and sold them on the pros of playing in each market. The Leafs' group included team president Brendan Shanahan, GM Kyle Dubas and head coach Mike Babcock, and also had pitches from current players such as centre Auston Matthews to join the club.
But the loyalty that had built between the 27-year-old Tavares in his nine seasons with the Islanders was a force that helped narrow his decision to two organizations: The only one he'd ever worked for as an NHLer, and the one now run by a focused, young group of players and managers eager to take the next step in their competitive cycle.
"It was quite the process," Tavares said of the decision and the free-agency period. "It was hard to turn down this opportunity...Every team made a great case, but as we got back from LA, I just felt like my heart was in two places: where I'm from, and a place where I'd been for a long time and helped me become the man I am today."
In the end, and after a Saturday afternoon that saw Tavares pace up and down the side of his pool, the 27-year-old chose to become a Leaf, and give Toronto one of the league's best collections of talent at that important position. With veterans Auston Matthews, Nazem Kadri and now Tavares at centre, the Buds have an enviable amount of skill and versatility down the middle.
The chance to speak with Babcock and learn how he intends to deploy his skills made Tavares that much more comfortable with his decision to come to Toronto. He and Babcock had worked together and won championships and gold medals before - specifically, at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, and at the 2014 Olympics - and Babcock's relentless drive to succeed resonates well with Tavares.
"There's definitely a comfort level with Mike," Tavares said Sunday. "His energy and his visions and obviously his worth ethic are second to none."
The Leafs bid farewell to a number of familiar faces and veteran contributors Sunday - forwards James van Riemsdyk, Tyler Bozak and Leo Komarov all moved on via free agency (respectively, to Philadelphia, St. Louis and the Islanders), while D-man Roman Polak departed for the Dallas Stars - but Toronto also added assets: forwards Adam Cracknell (most recently employed by the New York Rangers) and Josh Jooris (Pittsburgh) were both signed to one-year, $650,000 deals; defenceman Martin Marincin stayed with the organization by signing a one-year, $800,000 deal; and 23-year-old D-man Jordan Subban left the L.A. Kings organization by inking a one-year, two-way contract with an NHL salary of $650,000.
With due respect to that quartet of new Buds, the impact of Tavares on the team and Leafs Nation can't be overstated. He is a star at the peak of his considerable talents as a playmaker and play-finisher. In 669 career NHL regular-season games, he's amassed 621 career points (272 goals, 349 assists) and has 11 goals and 22 points in 24 career Stanley Cup playoff games. He is the biggest free-agent signing in Leafs history.
Now, don't take that to mean expectations were raised Sunday. The organization's internal expectations have always been sky-high. No, the reason the Tavares signing is such a thrill for Leafs Nation is this: an exceptional player has recognized a team's game plan for success, and made it clear to the hockey world he wants to play a part in it.
"Not everyday you can live a childhood dream," Tavares said in another tweet - this one, accompanied by a picture of a much-younger Tavares sleeping under a pile of Leafs blankets and pillows.
Now, millions of Toronto fans who've fantasized of seeing him compete with a Leaf on the front of his jersey can say they're seeing one of their own dreams realized.