John Tavares. Image by: Mike Stobe/Getty Images
By the time John Tavares is eligible for free agency the Islanders may not even have a home. Would anyone blame him for changing his tune about his future with the club?
Over the past couple of years, John Tavares has had countless opportunities to plant a seed of doubt. But he’s as honest a person as he is a hockey player. Whenever Tavares has been asked about his future with the New York Islanders, he hasn’t even hinted at leaving the organization that drafted him, not even as a future negotiating ploy. And those who know him well maintain there is no reason to think it’s not genuine. John Tavares is the real deal.
But with the news coming out Monday that the Barclays Center plans to divorce the Islanders in 2018 if the Islanders don’t walk out first, you have to begin to wonder how much one man can take. Tavares deserves better and the Islanders fans, many of whom have stuck with this team through an unending number of circuses, also deserve better. Having attended two games at Barclays during last year’s playoffs, I have to wonder how either side in this deal ever thought it would be tenable. The building is simply unsuitable for an NHL-caliber fan experience. Full stop. Never was and probably never will be. Forget about it having the worst ice surface in the league. Lots of buildings have ice that isn’t fit for NHL players. It’s almost everything else about it that doesn’t work.
You also have to wonder how the owners of the arena ever thought they’d be able to recoup the $53 million they pay the Islanders every year by offering that venue. It was a stopgap measure at best, and something tells me that both sides probably knew that from the beginning. But that didn’t stop them from selling people on the concept that this was a bold new era for the Islanders, and Tavares appears to have bought it hook, line and sinker.
Well, when NHL commissioner Gary Bettman stated that there are fundamental problems with Barclays and that Islanders owners Jon Ledecky and Steve Malkin would, “seriously consider their options,” that undoubtedly spurred Barclays to plant the divorce seed. Some have speculated this is a ploy by Barclays to renegotiate the deal, but if the Islanders are getting almost no revenues from the building, it makes no sense for them to accept less than $53 million a year when they could probably do better somewhere else.
So now it’s almost certainly over and Tavares, who is probably more weary of the circus involving this organization than the fans, has every right to put a stake in the ground. Nobody would blame him now for reconsidering his position. Even Islanders fans would understand if he relented on his wish to hoist the Stanley Cup in that area, because nobody ultimately knows whether the team is going to be there.
There has been no talk of major relocation…yet. There have been no threats, no visits to other cities, no bold proclamations. The NHL has already said it will fight for the markets that currently have teams and proved that in Arizona, where it must have wondered at times what it was even fighting for. There is talk of an arena being built on one of two sites – either near Belmont Park in Elmont or near Citi Field in Queens, where the New York Mets play. Heck, the Islanders have even been courted by their old home at the Nassau Coliseum, which is being given a facelift and seats 13,000 for hockey with the potential for 2,000 more being added. But that’s a non-starter, apparently.
All of this seems an awfully long ways away and rather tenuous, no? Even if the land is available, who’s going to pay to have the arena built? There are governments that seem to have no problems spending taxpayer money helping billionaires build monuments to the rich, but the Islanders aren’t exactly the kinds of heavy hitters that a city cannot do without. What if all the attempts to find the Islanders a suitable home go south, the same way their attempts to replace Nassau did? Well, then of course, Quebec City is waiting with open arms and would be able to offer the Islanders a marriage of convenience that might actually have a chance of working in the long run.
Tavares, meanwhile, is scheduled to hit unrestricted free agency after the 2017-18 season, about the same time the Islanders can trigger their own exit out of the Barclays clause. They can sign him to a long-term extension anytime after July 1, so this summer will be crucial for both sides. If Tavares goes into next season without a deal, then it begins a whole Steven Stamkos-like soap opera that will follow him everywhere he goes.
Tavares is grossly underpaid, but that’s not the Islanders’ fault. He will undoubtedly be looking to cash in. But he’ll also be looking for a place that he can truly call home for the following seven or eight years. And if the Islanders can’t offer him any stability, who would blame him for changing his tune about his future there? Tavares has given the Islanders full value and then some. Now would be the time for him to look out for himself.