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Tavares felt leaving Islanders for Maple Leafs was 'right thing for me'

Gets seven-year contract after difficult decision

by Brian Compton @BComptonNHL / Deputy Managing Editor

John Tavares spent the latter portion of the most agonizing week of his life pacing in the backyard of his home outside Toronto.

After meeting with six teams earlier in the week at his agent's office in Los Angeles, Tavares had narrowed the field to two on Saturday morning. Would he continue playing for the New York Islanders, who selected him with the No. 1 pick in the 2009 NHL Draft, or would he fulfill the childhood dreams he had skating on the ponds in Ontario and return home to play for the Toronto Maple Leafs?

"It was really gut-wrenching," Tavares said Sunday, a few hours after he signed a seven-year, $77 million contract with the Maple Leafs. "It was very difficult. It was very difficult. The hours I spent thinking about what I wanted to do and what was right for me was very challenging, but I just felt it was the right thing for me.

"For two full days, I didn't leave my house."


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But the decision has been made, and it comes after the Islanders failed to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs for a second straight season and the sixth time in Tavares' nine seasons with New York.

Those failures led to the hiring of Lou Lamoriello as president of hockey operations on May 22. Lamoriello fired Garth Snow as general manager and Doug Weight as coach on June 5. Lamoriello took over as GM and hired Barry Trotz, who had just won the Stanley Cup with the Washington Capitals, on June 21. But those moves weren't enough to convince Tavares to stay.

"Once I got into the offseason and the feelings of the season start to dissipate and you get over kind of the disappointment of this past year … I got to a point where I felt like this might be one time in my career where I can go to experience what other possibilities are," Tavares said. "Once I got to the interview period, it became very emotional, very heavy. Obviously, there was just something that I felt that was right. 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. I just had this feeling that it was an opportunity that I didn't want to pass up on, but I can tell you it was one of the hardest things, if not the hardest thing I've ever been through because of what the Island means to me, what the Islanders mean to me, and all the great people that have impacted my life and really helped shape me." 

Video: John Tavares on his new deal with the Maple Leafs

So the Islanders have lost the face of their franchise and don't get anything in return. Tavares said he understands it's not the best situation, but he reiterated Sunday he had no visions at the NHL Trade Deadline in late February of continuing his career elsewhere.

"At that time, I did not have any feelings about playing for any other team or hockey club," Tavares said. "I was invested each and every day being the captain of the Islanders, to play as hard as I can and approach each season like I always had and keep my focus solely on the ice and let my situation with my contract kind of progress and go with my gut and my feelings to, when the time was right, I would make a decision. 

"At that point in time, Garth told me that he wasn't going to trade me, which I completely respected, and I wasn't going to ask for a trade because I thought I was going to leave. That's not how it went down."

It's up to Lamoriello and Trotz to make the Islanders competitive next season without Tavares, their captain since 2013 who had 621 points (272 goals, 349 assists) in 669 games. Though he won't be a part of it, Tavares said he is confident New York is in good hands.

"I think Lou was tremendous, just being great in this whole process," Tavares said. "I think obviously trying to show me his vision for the Islanders, which I think is going to be great for the team. As time went on, I felt like I owed it to myself to see what else was out there. … I know that I was very thorough, which is my personality and kind of the way I go about things, trying to weigh everything that was involved and try to make a smart decision, but also trust my instincts, trust my feelings as well. [Lamoriello and Trotz] were tremendous. There's no question they're going to do great things for the Islanders. Lou is one of the best executives in hockey history. But there was something about the fit with the Maple Leafs at this point in my career and this opportunity and some of those feelings I started to feel about how special it would be to play where I grew up loving the game and where I'm from.

"They're the right people for the Islanders. They really couldn't have done much more. They were tremendous to me, and I thanked them for the respect of me in this process and understanding how I went about this process. I tried to do everything right and I tried to do things in the right way. I apologized that it didn't work out in the end because I know how much they cared about me and how much time they invested in me to want me to be a part of the Islanders going forward."

Video: Tavares introduced as a member of the Maple Leafs

Tavares leaves behind a number of memories -- some good, some bad -- but none greater than his double-overtime goal against the Florida Panthers in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference First Round in 2016, the only playoff series the Islanders have won since 1993. He'll remember being a 19-year-old rookie living in Weight's guest house, the former captain and coach being a mentor for him when he started in the NHL. He'll remember the fans, the same group that is none too pleased with him after his decision to leave town.

In the modern era of NHL free agency, which began in 1995, a No. 1 pick had never chosen to leave the team that drafted him to sign with another.

"When I was drafted first overall by the Islanders, they believed in me," Tavares said. "They put everything into me. They've been so supportive and a big part of who I am today, so you develop such strong feelings with one place. Then you start to get to this point where I had gotten to and you start to recognize some of the hockey things that I recognized and you start to develop some of those emotions again that you had as a kid and realizing the unique opportunity that I had. I just felt like it was the right thing for me and I couldn't pass it up. But my time in New York, I was as invested as I've ever been in anything I've ever done. The place means so much to me. It'll always be a part of me. There's so many great people and I think the organization is in tremendous hands now. I just felt like this was the right situation for me. When you grow up somewhere, you always develop some type of bond, and some of those things kind of came back to me here over the last little bit.

"I didn't obviously expect people to be thrilled. I made the decision that I felt was right for me and it's up to everyone to have their feelings on it. I just tried to be the best person I could be for the Islanders, the best hockey player I could be as long as I could. 

"I did the best I could. I have no regrets about that. I just wish I could have done more. As the leader of the team, I probably didn't do a good enough job getting more results that we needed and that that fan base deserves."

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