Bruce Arthur: Nylander’s Leaf return fulfils offer Tavares couldn’t refuse

Bruce Arthur: Nylander’s Leaf return fulfils offer Tavares couldn’t refuse
John Tavares was talking about starting a charitable foundation, which he plans to do at some point, and the Toronto Maple Leafs centre said he would approach it the way he approaches everything else. He will take it seriously.

“It’s a process, and obviously with everything that’s been going on in my life, I’m not trying to do too much at once,” said Tavares before Toronto’s Thursday night game against Detroit, with winger William Nylander back in the fold after his two-month holdout. “And when you do something like that, you want to do it right, and you want to take your time and be thorough and diligent and make sure you have a good grasp on what you’re doing.”

That’s how the 28-year-old Tavares approached free agency last summer: His agency, CAA Sports, prepared a 77-page booklet on the candidate teams and he pored over it. He says it was “on everything, from playing to the business side of it, the salary cap and everything, obviously the team and the depth charts, and the cities as well. We had a lot of conversations.”

He also relied on his own experience: nine years in the NHL, what you hear in the summer, what you hear from former teammates, and what you see. He looked at Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, Nylander, Morgan Rielly. He looked at the kids like Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson, and the depth in Toronto’s Calder Cup-winning system.

And he took less money to choose Toronto. And Thursday night, with Nylander returning to the lineup and Auston Matthews back from his shoulder injury, Toronto got to see the first glimpse of what Tavares chose.

“It was just too good,” said Tavares. “It was hard to not think this was the perfect timing, the perfect fit, hard to say no. It was just so hard to say no, (even) with how much I invested in New York, how much I cared about that organization and that place. And when you’re somewhere for so long and you put so much into it, you think about seeing it through and finding a way. But considering where I’m at in my career, and where these guys are, the core of this group and how young they are, the potential in the immediate and really through the whole length of my contract, which was a big deal for me.”

And then Nylander held out, and there was a real chance he wasn’t going to sign. But he secured a promise that he would not be traded from general manager Kyle Dubas — which Nylander made sure to make public when he spoke to the media about the deal — and with Matthews back too, this was the first time the full, post-Tavares Leafs were all in one place.

“I think we’ll see a good team that was already playing well and got a good player,” said goaltender Frederik Andersen. “I mean, all respect to Willie, but it’s not him or nothing; it’s like we add another great player to this program and this team, and it’s another marginal gain to get a player back or get extra depth. That’s really what it is. You can’t guarantee anything by adding one player — we’ve seen that multiple times in trade deadline deals, where you think this team’s going to win the Cup for sure now. How often does that happen?

“But good thing for us, he’s been here for a few years already … there are players who are higher threats to score, and I would say Willie is in that category. You add another player for teams to keep track of. He might be the one scoring, or it might open up space for other guys. You can’t match against all four lines unless you’re a really good team, and if you’re really deep on good defensive players. And even then, it’s another wave that keeps coming at you. Anyway, that’s how I see Willie coming back.”

He’s right. This is a team that was second in goals per game, with the second-best record in the NHL, and it is added a scoring, playmaking young winger to the mix.

In a way, this removes the biggest piece of suspense in this Leafs season. Now it’s about line combinations, injuries — if Andersen gets hurt, that would be real trouble — and how good the Leafs are with everyone present. This is the vision that the franchise sold to Tavares when he left Long Island: a team full of young talent up front, with contract questions but huge potential.

The Leafs sold Tavares on playing with the 21-year-old Marner, who entered Thursday on a 114-point pace; they sold him on Matthews, who scored 15 goals in his first 14 games, and Rielly, who is already more than halfway to a career high in points. And they sold Nylander.

“The timing and situation was so hard to ignore,” said Tavares. “Just that feeling. Looking at the facts, everything that was in front of me, and that feeling, that instinctive feeling. It was the right fit, and there would be no other time like this again. I couldn’t say no.”

It’s all here now, and it won’t be seamless, and hell, they could chase a Cup and lose in the first round. Now the Leafs, and the biggest hockey free agent in years, get to find out who they really are. And starting now, Tavares will find out just how right he was.
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