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How Maple Leafs landed Tavares

Plan set in motion in late February wins top free agent on market

by Mike Zeisberger @Zeisberger / Staff Writer

TORONTO -- John Tavares gave the Toronto Maple Leafs his word.

General manager Kyle Dubas still had his doubts.


[RELATED: Tavares likely to center line with Marner, Hyman | Tavares felt leaving Islanders for Maple Leafs was 'right thing for me']


After all the recruiting, all the speculation, all the contract discussions, Dubas couldn't fully believe that the Maple Leafs had landed Tavares, the grand prize in the 2018 NHL free agent class.

Until he saw the 27-year-old center walk into Scotiabank Arena on Sunday.

"That's the exact moment I was finally was convinced it was really happening," Dubas said.

Dubas couldn't wipe the smile off his face, and with good reason.

It was, after all, a long and difficult process. It was a journey that started four months earlier with an idea, escalated this past week with a recruiting battle against five other teams, and culminated with Tavares finally making his decision in Toronto's favor Saturday.

"You put your best foot forward and hope it's good enough," the 32-year-old GM said. "We're happy it was."

Video: Tavares agrees to seven-year deal with Maple Leafs

Here's how the Maple Leafs pulled it off, luring Tavares from the New York Islanders, making him the first No. 1 pick in the modern era of free agency (since 1995) to leave the team that drafted him to sign with another.

Dubas said the idea of targeting Tavares first gained traction after the NHL Trade Deadline on Feb. 26, when Toronto's management team started scouring the list of players who were eligible to become free agents July 1.

Tangible preparations began after the Maple Leafs were eliminated in seven games by the Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference First Round. A recruiting video was put together featuring past and present Maple Leafs, including forward Mitchell Marner.

The next step came during the 2018 NHL Draft in Dallas on June 22-23. Pat Brisson, Tavares' agent, invited the Maple Leafs, along with the Islanders, San Jose Sharks, Boston Bruins, Dallas Stars and Tampa Bay Lightning, to meet with his client at his agency's office in Los Angeles.

After the draft ended, Dubas flew to Los Angeles, where he met Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan and coach Mike Babcock. They huddled together to finalize their game plan the morning of June 25 before making their pitch to Tavares that night.

"I can't say enough about how Kyle handled it," Shanahan said. "He was the point man. He gave Mike and I our assignments."

Dubas confidently laid out for Tavares the direction the Maple Leafs are heading with young up-and-coming talents like Marner and Auston Matthews.

Shanahan, who like Tavares is a native of the Toronto area, talked about how special it was to be with the hometown franchise.

Babcock was the meat-and-potatoes guy, putting out the blueprint for how Tavares would be used, including the idea of playing on a line with Marner, who had 69 points (22 goals, 47 assists) in 2017-18, his second NHL season.

"I think, as John himself said, the timing was right," Shanahan said. "When it comes to playing in Toronto, a lot was said in the past about the fans, the media, and all you have to do is look at players like Mitch Marner, Connor Brown, Zach Hyman, guys who are from Toronto, thriving, loving it, enjoying it and so are their families. A lot of these (negative) narratives I hear from other places, I don't think it's an accurate depiction about how our players feel about playing in Toronto now."

The Maple Leafs contingent left Brisson's Beverly Hills office wondering if they'd been influential enough to sway Tavares from remaining with the Islanders or joining one of the other four teams that were still to make their presentation.

"We'd done our best, I can say that," Dubas said. "You don't know if it's enough though."

Video: Rosen and Tanguay take a look at the Tavares decision

Brisson said he could tell his client was impressed.

"They made a very influential case," Brisson told in a phone interview. "I could see it had an effect on John. The chance to be with such a talented team was big, sure. But when you add that a player can return to his hometown to play, it made him think.

"All the teams made great presentations. But that's one thing that was unique to Toronto the others could not offer."

Tavares said, "I think with where the Maple Leafs are at as an organization and as a team, and obviously the connection of those feelings that I started to get being from here and what an opportunity this could be, it just felt like it was right."

Once the six teams had made their pitch, Tavares flew home to Toronto on Thursday and began pacing. It became evident that the final decision would be between the Maple Leafs and Islanders, who picked him No. 1 at the 2009 NHL Draft.


[RELATED: Fantasy impact of Tavares' decisionFantasy signings roundup]


Tavares thought about his childhood days as a Maple Leafs fan watching Steve Thomas and Mats Sundin; about going to bed as a kid under his blue and white Maple Leafs blanket. Here was his chance to return, to live the dream, and to do it with a team he feels will be a Stanley Cup contender for years.

"For me, my gut was torn apart," Tavares said. "I knew [leaving the Islanders] would be the uncomfortable thing to do, but I didn't want that to affect my decision to take a chance."

Tavares told Brisson on Saturday that he was coming home.

"I talked to Kyle right away and we started working out the details of the contract," Brisson said. "I just think the timing was right for John. In his heart, it's what he wanted to do."

Tavares informed the world of his decision at 1:05 p.m. ET with a Twitter message that included the line: "I'm thrilled to be starting a new chapter of my career and life in Toronto with the @MapleLeafs."

About three hours later, Tavares walked into the Maple Leafs offices and signed his seven-year contract for $77 million.

"That's when I finally allowed myself to be excited," Dubas said.

After the four-month journey to land Tavares, he had reason to be.

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