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Graziano: Tavares Leaves Islanders And Fans With Unanswered Questions

Andy Graziano
July 03, 2018 - 4:18 pm
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"Life is not a movie. Good guys lose, everybody lies, and love... does not conquer all."

Kevin Spacey delivered that beautifully written line in one of the most underrated movies I’ve seen, ‘Swimming with Sharks, a 1994 film about an abusive Hollywood movie producer who has the tables turned on him by his frustrated assistant. The Islanders have seen the tables turned on them by their former captain.

There has been much written on John Tavares and his exit from the New York Islanders on the opening day of free agency, as he signed a seven-year, $77 million dollar contract to go back home and play for the team he grew up watching and idolizing. Did the team tell him he wasn’t to be traded, as John alluded to on his Sunday afternoon press tour? Did John tell the team not to trade him, as reported by the excellent and always reliable Arthur Staple of the Athletic?

When did the Islanders know about his intentions? Some were told Tavares made a decision (not necessarily told the team) late Friday night. To the point where David Pagnotta of the Fourth Period reported calls to teams out of the running started mid-Saturday and Darren Dreger reported Pat Brisson was ‘working all day Saturday finalizing the contract’ with the Leafs. But Tavares indicated it was late Saturday night after another day of deliberating that he made the decision. Does it even matter, anymore?

No, but according to fans, who feel deceived, abandoned and stabbed in the back by the only franchise player many of them have ever known, it does. If you have been following any sort of social media activity, there is plenty of vitriol out there for a man who scored 621 points in 669 career games in blue and orange and was individually responsible for the only playoff series victory they have ever seen.

He was surrounded by questionable talent almost his whole career and when the team did seem to gel and come together, he watched former general manager Garth Snow isolate and freeze out Kyle Okposo, underestimate the desire and importance of Frans Nielsen and let Matt Martin, a valuable locker room presence and a third of the ‘the best fourth line in hockey,’ skip to those same Maple Leafs. Ask the Vegas Golden Knights how important a role their third and fourth lines played in their trek to the Stanley Cup this past season.

MORE: Tavares Heads Home, Signs With Toronto

He watched him botch the goaltending, turning two nets into what he thought were three, leading Jaroslav Halak to accept a backup role with the Boston Bruins. He saw a leaky defense give up chances and goals by the boatload, injuries seemingly not attempting to be resolved and a rookie head coach in Doug Weight, who after roughly 50 games, seemed way over his head in a position maybe he didn’t even want in the first place.

He saw the fiasco that Barclays Center turned into, with its bad ice, off-center scoreboard, small crowds and BSE CEO Brett Yormark throwing haymakers to the media, calling them a ‘rent-a-team’. That was remedied how, exactly? By now having to play half your home schedule in one building and half in another for the next three seasons until Belmont is finished - which, by the way, has not broken ground yet. Pat Brisson told Newsday’s Stephen Marcus via email ‘not really’ when asked if that played any role in Tavares’ decision. Not a yes, but hardly a no, either.

If you’re in the camp Scott Malkin is to blame for waiting so long to change the culture surrounding the team’s front office, that holds validity. However, if the change was made, let’s say, last year, Lou Lamoriello and Barry Trotz wouldn’t be here, as both were employed at the time. Keep in mind, even under this new leadership, Carter Hutton took less money to play for Buffalo and David Perron spurned a matching offer from the Islanders. Halak ran to Boston along with John Moore, another target.

The strongest argument is Snow did not do enough to simply surround Tavares with talent while he was developing throughout the course of a ridiculously low $5.75 million dollar long-term contract.  How many times must Snow have told John, ‘Be patient, we’ll get there. Wait it out, I’m working on it.’ In a result based business, Snow did not produce. And it didn’t, obviously, evoke confidence in Tavares for the future, especially with Snow still around, albeit in a seemingly reduced role. Remember, Lou doesn’t answer to anyone. Except Lou.

But to fully blame Tavares for what happened? For how he left? I truly believe this was a genuine man, a caring man who truly did say what he believed about Long Island and its team. At the time. Perhaps before Toronto ever started becoming a reality, instead of just a fantasy. Put yourself in his shoes for one minute.

You’re a rising child prodigy, from Mississauga, who grew up watching the Leafs. Fantasizing that one day, you’re able to put on the sweater of that team. You get drafted by the Islanders and put your heart and soul into an organization that, simply, didn’t do enough to compete, even taking a team-friendly contract. You never thought, in a million years, playing for the Leafs would ever be a reality. Then, all of a sudden, it is. The lure of going home versus all the years wasted by Islanders management and the debacles that came with it, was just too much to overcome. I’m betting that a large number would have done the same exact thing, given the same exact circumstances.

Fans spend their hard earned money and deserve to be entertained. They also expect, rightfully, that money be spent to put a competitive team on the ice that can contend for the ultimate prize. That’s the least they should expect. So, it’s not their fault for reacting the way they did and are. They’re hurt, and they should be. They’re angry, and they should be. You can’t for one second, put any blame on a fanbase kicked in the head with an iron boot so many times, they might even be looking over their shoulders at this point, literally. 

What writing does, over the course of time - in my case, seven years - is take the fandom out of the game. You’re no longer a ‘true fan’, forced to be an objective observer while on the job. But, I had my moment with it. After the press conference and media call Sunday, I took fifteen minutes to revert back to when I was about 30-years old. And I genuinely felt sadness and empathy. The eyes might have welled a little. As my son, a Rangers fan, started chirping at me, in good humor mind you, my wife turned to him and said, ‘It really sucks, let him have his time with it’. She, to be fully transparent, is also a Rangers fan.

There will be emotions like what one would feel when someone they’ve loved their whole life, simply does what’s right for them and their family, even though they know it will hurt the other. For most, it pains them greatly also. That pain will manifest itself in countless ways, none of them ‘wrong’ per se. At the end of the day, the finger pointing will stop. The true reason this happened might become clearer. It might not, But the pain will fade as teams take back to the ice.

Maybe the New York Islanders look much different come September. Maybe they don’t. But know this. They are in terrific hands with Lamoriello and Trotz at the helm and Mat Barzal as the new centerpiece of a franchise in ‘recalibration’. They have a restocked farm system of Kieffer Bellows, Oliver Wahlstrom, Noah Dobson and Bode Wilde, granted none of them are traded for Erik Karlsson.

But there is nothing that will convince me that Tavares acted with conscious malice and deception towards a franchise and community he simply gave everything to. On the contrary, you could argue that they acted with deception towards him. Go ahead, disagree. I know you want to. But, keep in mind, this is just one man's opinion.

Follow Andy on Twitter at @AndyGraz_WFAN