Today marks two years since the New York Islanders saw John Tavares walk out the door as an unrestricted free agent.
On that fateful day, Tavares made his decision to leave the Isles after nine seasons to sign with the Toronto Maple Leafs, whom he grew up rooting for. His selection — another supposedly huge setback, one the Islanders were used to so often — stung heavily for the entire organization and the fanbase.
Every Isles fan can recall that day and where they were when they heard the news.
Sidenote: For me, sadly enough I was in the backseat of a car with a few of my Ranger fan friends driving back from a flag football game and was about to take a nap. Then my buddy got a twitter notification and said loudly, “he’s gone.” I just sat there in silence, literally stunned.
It’s easy to see why that was my and many others’ reaction.
Tavares was the “Chosen One” and was brought to Long Island to be the savior back in 2009. The Islanders drafted him first overall that summer with the hope he would lead the franchise back to glory.
And there’s no question he did everything in his power to fulfill those lofty expectations.
He was everything and more than the Isles could have asked for in his years in orange and blue. Superstar. Captain. Leader. The face of the franchise. He put the entire team on his back to help them slay the dragon and win their first playoff series in 23 years in 2016. And even before he left, he was the one advocating for the team to return back to the Nassau Coliseum on a part or full-time basis.
All of that sentiment though faded for many that pivotal July afternoon. We all know about the treatment he received his first trip back to Long Island and the two other games he’s played as an Islander opponent. Even now, the number he donned for almost a decade — 91 — was retired this past season and hangs in the rafters with (Butch) Goring’s name on it.
When Tavares announced he was leaving, the consensus from around the hockey world was the Islanders were left for dead. They had just come off a second straight season of missing the playoffs and were considered the worst defensive team in the NHL.
Looking back at it now, the critics were wrong.
Several things have changed dramatically for the franchise since Tavares’s departure, on and off the ice.
For starters, there are actual adults in charge of running this organization. Granted, Tavares was still a part of the Isles when ownership hired Lou Lamoriello to be the general manager and when Lou hired Barry Trotz as head coach, but that was only for a month at best. Lamoriello has restored accountability and true direction back to this franchise, while Trotz has created an identity and we-before-me mentality since taking over.
Both also have re-invigorated the pride and respect that comes with putting on an Islander uniform.
The team has a core who looks poised to be together and win together. Lamoriello has assembled a group of players who wanted to be here for the long-haul and who believe they can bring a Stanley Cup back to the organization. He’s done it with team-friendly contracts and key acquisitions.
A real head coach and actual structure. We don’t know if Tavares will ever be kicking himself for not sticking it out and getting to play for Trotz (seriously hope he does), but how Trotz has transformed the organization can’t be denied. Yes, JT was thrown a not-so-easy hand with Scott Gordon, Jack Capuano, and Doug Weight. Then again, neither of those three combined has the acumen and experience Trotz has delivered. Trotz’s structure has turned the Islanders into one of the top teams in the league defensively and has allowed several players to evolve into something no one thought they could be (looking at you, Adam Pelech).
The organization has a number of talented prospects in the pipeline. One of Tavares’s main reasons for choosing Toronto was its highly-touted farm system. But the Isles have done a solid job themselves restacking the system. Rookie d-man Noah Dobson — drafted 12th overall in 2019 — was with the Isles this past season and has top-four potential; Oliver Wahlstrom, Kieffer Bellows, and Simon Holmstrom have the opportunity to add some real depth on the wing in the near future; Bode Wilde and Samuel Bolduc aren’t far off from adding to an already deep yet underrated d-corps. Oh and that Ilya Sorokin guy. A Russian phenom, Sorokin — whenever he finally does join the organization — will be the unequivocal future in goal.
A captain with character. Some might call this a shot at Tavares, but in retrospect, it’s not. Anders Lee has brought more personality while wearing the “C” on his sweater than Tavares truly did. Lee has become what the Isles needed in a leader to help establish that team-first mantra. He’s already well-respected by everyone in the locker room and is willing to do anything for the team to win.
A real home on the horizon. I can still picture the day back in December 2017 where Tavares and his teammates were at the celebration for the franchise winning the bid to build a brand new home at Belmont Park. It honestly felt that day would also be what caused Tavares to stay an Islander. Boy was that a pipedream of sorts.
During Tavares’ tenure with the Isles, there had been non-stop chatter about a new home for the organization. That was never a reality until now.
The new arena at Belmont is nearly halfway finished and is set to open for the 2021-22 season, but it has already made the Isles a destination once again and will be an even bigger game-changer once construction finally complete.
When Tavares left two years, this once-proud franchise looked to be on its last leg. That’s no longer the case.
They are in a much better position with a brighter future.