In a Blow to the Islanders, John Tavares Joins the Maple Leafs

John Tavares, an Islander his entire nine-year career and the team captain the past five seasons, has decided to go home. He signed a seven-year, $77 million contract on Sunday with the Toronto Maple Leafs that will bolster that club but leave the Islanders without the longtime face of their franchise. The 27-year-old Tavares was the first overall pick by the Islanders in 2009 and went on to lead the team in scoring seven times. His signature moment was the double-overtime goal scored against Florida in the 2016 playoffs, which clinched the series for the Islanders. It turned out to be the only postseason series that Tavares won in his near-decade with the team.

“I’m thrilled to be starting a new chapter of my career and life in Toronto,” Tavares said on his Twitter feed after agreeing to the deal with the Maple Leafs. “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.’’ The Islanders missed the playoffs for the second straight year last season, and for the sixth time in Tavares’s Islanders tenure. The Islanders made wholesale front-office changes after last season, hiring Lou Lamoriello as the president of hockey operations and then naming him general manager as well in place of Garth Snow. Lamoriello, in turn, hired Barry Trotz, who led the Washington Capitals to the Stanley Cup this past spring, to replace Doug Weight as coach.

But that wasn’t enough to convince Tavares to stick around, even with the Islanders’ majority owner, Jon Ledecky, and Snow repeatedly stating that they wanted Tavares to remain an Islander for his entire career.

“It was tough,” Tavares said on Sunday. “You’re in one place for so long, you get so embedded, your roots are so deep in there. You care so much about the people and the people that have cared about you.”

Tavares grew up a Maple Leafs fan in Mississauga, Ontario. In his Twitter statement, he said he was “thankful that I had the opportunity to be an Islander for as long as I did,” but added that it was “time to live my childhood dream here in Toronto.”

Tavares maintained all season he did not want his contract situation to be a distraction. He watched teammates Kyle Okposo and Frans Nielsen go through the same process two years ago and emphasized in April there would be ample time to mull his future after the season. He made his choice public after months of tension for the Islanders’ fan base.

His departure leaves the Islanders with an emerging leader in Mathew Barzal, who won the Calder Trophy last season as the league’s top rookie. The 21-year-old center led the team with 85 points (22 goals and 63 assists).

“I know it’s been a bittersweet day,” Tavares said, “but I really believe they’ve got a bright future ahead of them.”

Tavares, meanwhile, will be joining a talent-laden Maple Leafs squad that features Auston Matthews, the top overall draft pick in 2016, plus young scoring stars William Nylander and Mitch Marner.

The Maple Leafs haven’t won the Stanley Cup since 1967, the longest drought in the National Hockey League. The Rangers also signed defenseman Fredrik Claesson to a one-year deal. The 25-year-old Swede played for Ottawa the past three seasons. The St. Louis Blues signed forward Tyler Bozak, the Vegas Golden Knights added forward signed Paul Stastny and James Van Riemsdyk left Toronto to return to the Philadelphia Flyers, who originally drafted the scoring forward second over all in 2007.