When the news broke on Canada Day last year that the Toronto Maple Leafs were signing John Tavares, the expectations couldn’t have been higher going into this season.
- Salary cap issues remain for Maple Leafs after Matthews contract
- This is what the Maple Leafs practice at Nathan Phillips Square looked like (PHOTOS)
- The Maple Leafs are accusing Snoop Dogg's cannabis brand of trademark violation
As the ink dried on his new seven-year $77 million contract, the hype surrounding Tavares spread like wildfire. Leafs fans and media outlets across the country couldn’t stop talking about how the star centre would impact the Leafs and whether or not his arrival would make the team a Stanley Cup contender.
— Frank Seravalli (@frank_seravalli) July 2, 2018
Now that the regular season is more than halfway finished, it’s now safe to say that Tavares has played so well that he’s managed to exceed those lofty expectations in the NHL’s most volatile hockey market.
Since scoring his first goal as a Leaf on opening night against Montreal, Tavares is on pace to have the best season of his NHL career.
In 55 games Tavares leads the Leafs with 33 goals and is second on the team with 60 points. Tavares is poised to easily shatter his career-high 38 goals and 86 points he scored with the New York Islanders during the 2014-15 season.
The Mississauga native is on pace to score 49 goals and 89 points this season.
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) February 10, 2019
His strong performance allowed him to be named to the 2019 All-Star Game with Auston Matthews and has put him in the hunt for the Rocket Richard Trophy. He’s currently tied with Patrick Kane for second place in the NHL for goals scored and is only four goals behind Alexander Ovechkin for first place.
While Tavares is setting personal career highs this season, he’s bringing the best out of his new teammates as well. His partnership with Mitch Marner has made them one of the league’s most dangerous duos. Marner leads the Leafs with 66 points this season (20 goals, 46 assists) and is tied for seventh in the NHL in assists and ninth in points.
— Sportsnet Stats (@SNstats) February 7, 2019
What makes Tavares’ strong performance even more exciting for Leafs fans this season is that he’s helped break a trend of disappointing free agent signings the Leafs have made over the years.
Ghosts of Jeff Finger
The signing of Patrick Marleau last year has been beneficial for the Leafs in some ways – he scored 27 goals last season, 12 goals this year, and has emerged as a second father to Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner. But it will be hard to ignore his $6.25 million salary cap hit as the team tries to re-sign all of its young players over the next couple of seasons.
When you look past that the Leafs free agent history gets much worse.
In 2013 the Leafs thought they hit the jackpot when the signed David Clarkson to his infamous seven-year $36.75 million contract. He began his tenure with a 10-game suspension and scored only 26 points in 118 regular season games. If it wasn’t for the Nathan Horton trade with the Columbus Blue Jackets, the Leafs would still be paying him $5.3 million, which would make it the fourth highest contract on the team this season.
In 2011 the Leafs signed Tim Connolly to a two-year $9.5 million contract in the hopes that they found someone to play alongside Phil Kessel. Unfortunately Connolly barely played with Kessel and only scored 36 points during his first season in Toronto. He would then be sent to the AHL with the Toronto Marlies the following year.
General manager Brian Burke signed Mike Komisarek in 2009 to a five-year $21.5 million contract thinking that he got a hard hitting defenceman to solidify the Leafs’ defence. But shoulder injuries would plague Komisarek and the Leafs would buy-out his contract in 2013.
Jeff Finger hit the lottery in 2008 when Leafs general manager Cliff Fletcher decided to throw a four-year $14 million contract his way. He only lasted two seasons with the Leafs before spending his remaining two years in the AHL with the Marlies.
Lastly, former Islander Jason Blake was supposed to be a scoring threat in 2007, just like Tavares, when the Leafs signed him to a five-year $20 million contract. It was not meant to be as the former 40-goal scorer could never repeat his previous success in three seasons before getting traded to the Anaheim Ducks.
In a hockey city as demanding as Toronto, there’s immense pressure for free agents to succeed with the Leafs, especially when they sign big contracts. While Leafs fans have had reasons to be skeptical in recent years, they can rest easy knowing that when it comes to John Tavares the hype is definitely real and it will be incredible to watch for the rest of this season and for the next six.