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Tavares could become one of most desirable free agents in NHL history

Former teammates praise skill, ambition of Islanders captain as decision nears

by Brian Compton @BComptonNHL / NHL.com Deputy Managing Editor

John Tavares and Matt Moulson have known each other since Tavares was in Grade 8 and played lacrosse with Moulson's brother.

They wound up as roommates when Tavares came to the NHL, living in Doug Weight's guest house. When it was time for dinner, they had a system; one would cook, the other washed dishes. Afterward, they played video games. They talked hockey and how to get better.

In 2012, Moulson asked Tavares to be the godfather of his first child, a daughter, Mila.

"I think you have maybe a handful of people in your life that you can call no matter what, and he's one of those people," Moulson said this month. "If anything were to be wrong or if you needed something super important and you call them, he's the type of guy that would put down everything and help you out. He's always there to talk if you need to talk about stuff. Just a real, loyal person and someone that I'll always have a friendship with no matter what's going on in our lives just because of how great a person he is."

 

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With Tavares about to make the biggest decision of his career, you would think Moulson would have a good idea what it might be. He says he doesn't.

"To be honest, I asked him a couple of times about it, maybe last summer, and I don't think I've brought it up since," Moulson said. "Johnny, knowing the way he makes decisions and the way he approaches life, he's going to look at all the pros and cons of everything and really take his time and make sure he's making the best decision for himself and his soon-to-be wife and their family. It's something that if he ever asks me, I'd always give him an honest answer. It's something I don't really pester him with; I just know he's going to take his time and make the correct decision. He's not going to rush into anything. I think he's handled it as well as he could with the media asking over a whole year. I wouldn't expect him to handle it any differently."

Tavares was the No. 1 pick in the 2009 NHL Draft and has played his entire NHL career with the New York Islanders. With 621 points (272 goals, 349 assists) in 669 games, the 27-year-old is about to sign the most lucrative contract of his career, whether it's with New York or another team.

If he declines to re-sign with the Islanders, Tavares on July 1 will become one of the most sought after unrestricted free agents in NHL history.

His play has helped others live more comfortably, including Moulson, who had three 30-goal seasons on Tavares' left wing that ultimately led to a five-year, $25 million contract with the Buffalo Sabres. PA Parenteau played the majority of his first seven professional seasons in the American Hockey League, then scored 120 points in two seasons on a line with Tavares, leading to a four-year, $16 million contract with the Colorado Avalanche.

"That changed my life completely," Parenteau said of playing with Tavares. "I can retire in peace now just because of those two years.

"It's crazy that I was 27 and he was 19, and I learned from him. [I learned] how to be a pro. I didn't have it in me, really. Maybe that's why I spent so much time in the minors, but I learned from him, and he learned the social part. I think we were a good combo for those two years. I was keeping him loose a little bit, and he pushed me.

"Hockey's his life. He's very serious, he's very dedicated, like more than anybody I've played with, and I've played with a lot of guys, a lot of top-end prospects and elite players. He's by far the most dedicated I've played with."

Islanders forward Mathew Barzal got to see firsthand how driven Tavares is. Barzal, who led New York and NHL rookies with 85 points (22 goals, 63 assists) in 82 games, marveled at the work ethic the captain brought to the rink daily.

"He drives this organization and drives this team with how dedicated he is to hockey and being better every single day," Barzal said in April. "I think that was what I took the most, just his compete level in practice. I was waiting for a day where he didn't come and give it everything he had, and not one day he didn't come in and wasn't the hardest worker. As a young guy seeing that, that gives me a reason to work hard every day."

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Steven Stamkos, a longtime friend of Tavares, faced a similar situation two offseasons ago. Stamkos, the No. 1 pick in the 2008 NHL Draft and the face of the Tampa Bay Lightning, played out the final season of his contract and talked with other teams before deciding to sign an eight-year, $68 million contract to remain in Tampa Bay, two days before he would have become an unrestricted free agent.

Tavares completed his third junior season with Oshawa of the Ontario Hockey League when Stamkos was drafted by the Lightning. In his second junior season (2006-07), Tavares scored 72 goals in 67 games. He and linemate Brett MacLean combined for 234 points that season and 237 in 2007-08.

"He never openly would say, 'I need to go first overall,'" MacLean said. "But I think we all knew that he put a lot of pressure on himself that he expected to go first overall, and I think that even when we played in the OHL, he would never say it, but with Stamkos and that rivalry as well and wanting to kind of be the better of the two … I think Stamkos was the same and that's why they're so great. They strive every day to be the best.

"Even though he never would have openly said it out loud, there was a lot of pressure that [John] was putting on himself to be the No. 1 overall pick and to be that generational player."

Video: Where will John Tavares end up this offseason?

The pressure has always been palpable for Tavares, the first player to receive exceptional status in the OHL in 2005. On March 17, 2007, Tavares scored his 70th and 71st goals of the season to break Wayne Gretzky's record for the most by a 16-year-old.

"Being around him every day, I think he handled it incredibly," MacLean said. "A lot of people wouldn't have been able to deal with the pressure that he was under, and he was always under the microscope. We would have a great weekend, and there's still people nitpicking his game; 'He's not a good enough skater, not good enough defensively.' You're looking at a kid who had 72 goals as a 16-year-old and (134) points, one of the top guys in the league. A lot of what people wanted to talk about was his skating and the things he needed to work on to be an elite talent in the NHL. Definitely, he had a lot of pressure on him, but I think he carried himself really well.

"He always wanted to get better. He just had that inner ability to always work on things, which I think really helped my game as well. We'd go on the ice early at practice and work on different things, whether it was on the power play together, different plays we could work on, work on our shot. He always worked on his skating. I think he knew and could recognize he needed to get better at skating to make an impact in the NHL. It's something he really focused on."

Scott Gordon was Tavares' first coach in the NHL with the Islanders before he was fired 17 games into the 2010-11 season. Gordon was named assistant coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs the following season and remembers the first time facing Tavares as an opponent.

"I hadn't really seen him for a while," said Gordon, now coach of Lehigh Valley in the AHL. "Our first game, he blew by one of our defensemen. I was like, 'Wow.' I never saw that coming. It was weird to think that he could ever get himself to be able to have the appearance that he was fast and beat an NHL veteran defenseman. You take your hat off to his ability to train and get better at something that wasn't one of his strengths. It's not always just about speed; sometimes it's deception, sometimes it's strength and power.

"When we had him, obviously the skill was there. But he was an easy check as far as having the strength to play against men, which is understandable. Whatever it was, three years later, I'm watching in Toronto, he was like a different player. That's something you really have to give him credit for."

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Moulson remembers how mature Tavares was as a rookie. Most teenagers, especially ones well off financially, probably would prefer not to cook for themselves. But Moulson said Tavares was determined to take care of his body from the beginning.

"Johnny's a pretty serious guy," Moulson said. "Back then, he was even more serious. I don't think we let loose too often. My wife was kind of back and forth, she was working in the city (New York) and would stay some nights. We played a lot of video games, did a lot of cooking. We always had a good cooking routine where one person would cook every night, and we didn't have a dishwasher, so the other person would wash dishes. We watched a lot of shows, movies, video games. We talked a lot of hockey. We were a pretty focused twosome.

"He was a decent cook, even back then. Now he's really good. He takes everything seriously. Nutrition is up there as one of the most serious things he does. He's very good now."

Moulson quickly noticed the burden Tavares was carrying as a 19-year-old, the determination and willingness to bring the Islanders back to prominence. Tavares had 24 goals and 30 assists in his rookie season of 2009-10, but the Islanders went 34-37-11 and finished last in the Atlantic Division. Most nights, Moulson recalled, Tavares accepted more blame than he probably deserved.

"Johnny puts that pressure on himself all the time, as all great players do," Moulson said. "I think right from that first year, he had a goal for himself, and that was to be the best in the world. I think he's definitely learned a lot off the ice since then about being able to kind of get away from it at some points, try and relax while still staying focused on hockey. But I think that first year, I think we talked to each other a lot like, 'Don't worry, we've got another game.' Especially on the same line all the time, it was, 'OK, we've got to be better.' When you talk about Johnny as an elite player and an elite leader, I don't really remember an instance where he would tell me I played bad. I'd come off after the game and be like, 'Sorry Johnny, I didn't have it. I stunk out there tonight.' He'd be like, 'No, I should have been better.' It was always on him. I don't think he ever points the finger.

"If something doesn't go well or he's not winning, he takes it upon himself to turn it around. That's what you need in a great leader. He's never pointing fingers. He's always looking for ways for him to do more, to accomplish more. I think it's something he's carried with him through his lifetime. He's got some of the best focus and drive and self-discipline and determination I've ever experienced with any athletes that I've known."

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Travis Hamonic was Tavares' teammate when New York got its first (and only) playoff series win since 1993: April 24, 2016, in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference First Round against the Florida Panthers at Barclays Center.

Tavares, who tied the game with 54 seconds left in the third period, sent the Islanders to the second round at 10:41 of double overtime when he got his rebound, drove the net and put a wraparound past Panthers goalie Roberto Luongo to give New York a 2-1 win. It created a memory for a generation's worth of Islanders fans who weren't around for the glory years when New York won four straight Stanley Cup championships from 1980-83.

"Watching JT score that goal and the emotion that you have, we carried the weight of the world of every Islander fan," said Hamonic, a defenseman who was traded to the Calgary Flames on June 24, 2017. "When that goal went in, the emotion that we felt, it was as fun of a moment I had of being an Islander.

"I don't have to say anything about his play on the ice; everybody in New York, everybody in the country, in the League, in the world have seen what he's done on the ice. That speaks for itself. Sometimes, the outside perspective can see John as being kind of a reserved person and things like that. When you know him as long as I have, he's a special person.

"He's someone who is a great friend. He cares a lot about people, about his teammates, about his friends. Not just about me, but our extended families. And not just as a captain -- you expect to see that -- but as a person. He's one of the best that I've ever been around. Whether he leaves New York or not, they're obviously going to get a world-class player, everyone knows that. But I really think John as a person is better as a person than he is as a player, and I think that speaks volumes because of how good he is as a hockey player.

"He's technically a couple of months younger than I am, but he's someone that basically I've spent my whole career looking up to. How he conducts himself on and off the ice and the pressure that he felt and how he handled it on and off the ice and what kind of person he was … any team that gets him is going to be so fortunate obviously for his on-ice capabilities, but what he can bring to a locker room, to an organization and truthfully to an entire community is something that you can't really replace. If you have a chance to get a player like that, that's generational in my opinion."

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

Parenteau said he isn't sure if Tavares will decide to stay in New York, but he hopes he does. New York hired Lou Lamoriello on May 22 after they missed the playoffs for a second straight season, and he fired Garth Snow as GM and Weight as coach on June 5.

"They didn't have a great year as a team and they've made a lot of changes," Parenteau said. "I think he knew that was coming, but I don't know … I'm not surprised he hasn't signed yet by any means.

"There's a side of me that hopes he's going to stay there. He looks good in that jersey. I think that's his team, you know?"

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