Maple Leafs John Tavares readies for ret

The next game atthe “Old Barn” in Uniondale, N.Y.,will have a different feel. It pits two of the top teams in the Eastern Conference, two veteran coaches and two young superstars in Mat Barzal and Auston Matthews.

But those storylines are completely irrelevant. Feb. 28 has long been circled on the calendar of Islanders fans and all their focus will be on No. 91, John Tavares. The expectation isit won’t be a warm, thank you for your nine years, welcome.

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“The fans can boo and all that stuff but thats because theyre Islander fans,” commented former NHLer and current NBC Sports analyst Jeremy Roenick when asked recently during an exclusive Q&A with Sporting News. “I think John Tavares is going to love them and respect them and understand that situation

“Im sure that when the game is over the fans will still love John Tavares even though they wont show it to him and John Tavares will still appreciate and love the Islander fans.”

Ten years ago this June, then-GM Garth Snow walked to the podium at the Bell Center in Montreal. The words hespoke next forever changed a franchise desperate for a return to its dynasty days.

“With the first overall pick, the New York Islanders select John Tavares.”

(Getty Images)

As confetti rained down on the 10,000 fans some Patrice Bergeron Jersey already sporting Tavares jerseys on the floor atthe Na sau Veteran’s Memorial Coliseum, their eyes lit up with the prospect of the team havingits first homegrown superstar since the days of Mike Bo sy and Brian Trottier.

Hewas anointed as the savior of the franchise.

“John Tavares is the second-best Islander in the post-Cup era,behind Pat LaFontaine,” said Noel Fogelman, a co-host for the Isles Buzzpodcast.”Tavares did what every superstar player is expected to do:make the players around him better. Tavares never played with a superstar on his wing but made players such as P.A. Parenteau and Matt Moulson rich. The captain often had to carry the team on his back.”

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Fast forward to 2019 and Tavares is now set to return to the Coliseum wearing a different blue uniform. He will enter the doors, walk down the stairs and,for the first time in his career, step inside the visitor’s locker room as a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

“I really embraced being an Islander, I loved it,” Tavares told reportersTuesday.”It was a great place to play. I never didn’t enjoy my time there even when things weren’t going well. I did everything I could to just help the team hopefully win the Stanley Cup and unfortunately we weren’t able to do that andI takeresponsibiity, especially being the captain.”

“I gave it everything I had on a daily basis and tried to Torey Krug Jersey do the best I can for the Islanders and was proud to be one.”

Over the course of nine seasons with the Islanders, Tavares was a five-time All-Star, a two-time Hart Trophy finalist and led the team to three postseason appearances, includingthe second round of the playoffs in 2016 with the game-tying goal and double-overtime winner. In 669 regular season games, he netted 621 points (272 goals, 349 a sists) and 42 game-winning goals.

But the good times could not outweigh the bad three head coaches, two arenasand a team that struggled to find its way. While he maintained that he wanted to be an Islander, even saying following the morning skate prior to what would be his last home game, “I hope it all works out too and Im back as well,” Tavarespacked his bags July 1.

“The blame for Tuukka Rask Jersey Tavares leaving is 50 percent Tavares for holding the team hostage throughoutlast season and 50 percentthe owners for allowing that,not pre suring him into signing the extension, and failing to trade him at the trade deadline when the Islanders were out of playoff contention,” Fogelman said.

“I have absolutely no regrets,” Tavares saidon Feb. 10 regarding signing with the team he grew up cheering for. “When I made the decision, it felt right to me. I felt it was the best thing for me and my career.”

Obviously, the best thing for his career does not sit well with those whoroot for the Islanders, but there is more to the game then what happens on the ice.

“Busine s is busine s,” Roenick said. “John Tavares doesnt have anything to be ashamed of for what he gave to the Island. He represented as best as anybody could ever do as a captain. He was as consistent as he could as a player, especially when the team didnt give him any help, and he never complained.

“He just did what he was able to do in busine s and that is [to] be able to go to a team that he thought was better suited to win a Stanley Cup.”

Tavares has flourished in Toronto. The pre sure to be an entire fan base and franchise’s savior is removed. While he always put up solid numbers for the Islanders, it’s fair to say that he never had the same star power he is suiting with on a daily basis this season. Entering Thursday, he has 68points (36goals, 32a sists) in 63games.

“To me, he just does it right every day,”Leafs head coach Mike Babcock saidFeb. 10 prior to Toronto’s 4-1 lo s to the Rangers. “Hes an ultimate profe sional. Loves hockey, tries to get better every day. Anything weve asked him to do hes done it in spades. … Hes a great pro. So hes a good example for our young, high-end quality players to look up to, to watch and to see what he does and get an understanding of what you have to do if you want to be great every day in the league.

Now the playernicknamed J.T. will face the toughest test of his career. He will “try to treat it like any other game,” though he acknowledges it won’t be, and “focus on playing and trying to play well.”

This game will definitely not be like any other game. Based on social media, the expectation is that the Coliseum will be an extremely hostile environment. He may have some cheers but he most likley will be booed every time he touches the puck, fans will be sporting jersey’s with his name cro sed out and replaced, signs will line the rink and fans will be Cam Neely Jersey wearing pajamas.

“Its very hard. Its unbelievably hard. Its one of the hardest things you do as a star athlete is to go back to your the town that made you famous,” Roenick acknowledged. “The Island made John Tavares famous. Thats where he played, thats the fans that loved him. And all of sudden hes not there anymore.

“Fans dont care about the busine s side, they care about the sports side, they care about the winning side. Thats always got to be understood by the players and it always is.”

Tavares understands and hopefully the fans will understand he gave them his all.

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