Sports

John Tavares has seven years to get it done, but wants a Leafs Stanley Cup sooner rather than later

John Tavares was sitting in an empty dressing room last week
and talking about his desire for a Stanley Cup, the window of
opportunity for an NHL player, and (once again) why he chose to
sign with the Toronto Maple Leafs this summer, but his eyes
kept darting towards the thick silver band on his finger, which
at that moment was cutting off circulation to the rest of his
hand.

“It feels tight,” he said of the ring, as he wriggled it back
and forth towards his knuckle. “I think for whatever reason, my
finger’s swollen right now.”

It took getting married this summer for Tavares to realize that
his fingers tend to get bigger in the morning. It’s good to
know this now, we suppose, because if all goes according to
plan this season, Tavares and the rest of the Toronto Maple
Leafs will be heading back to the jeweller next summer.

When he does, he’ll want to order a championship ring that is
at least one size larger than the last one he bought.

Not to get too far ahead of ourselves, but that’s why Tavares
signed in Toronto. He wants to win a championship. And while he
has given himself seven years to get it done, he wants to get
it out of the way sooner rather than later. That’s the
immediate goal. Or rather, that’s the expectation — both from
Tavares and Maple Leafs fans.

“Getting into the dance is what it’s all about,” Tavares told
Postmedia News during last week’s NHL Player Media Tour in
Chicago. “It’s about giving yourself that opportunity to
compete for a Stanley Cup. With how young this team is and how
talented we are — you look at what they’ve already accomplished
in such a short period of time — I think for the duration of my
whole contract we’re going to be extremely competitive.”

Getting into the dance is what it’s all about

It might be unfair to suggest that it’s Stanley Cup or bust for
the Leafs, who enter training camp on Friday as the prohibitive
favourites to go all the way now that they have two of the
top-10 centres in the league. At the same time, they’ve used up
their mulligans from the past two years.

It’s no longer acceptable to lose in the first round, as they
did against Washington in 2017 and Boston in 2018. The rebuild
is long over. Their young guys can’t use their ages as excuses.
Starting on Oct. 3, anything short of playing for a
championship will be deemed a letdown.

“I think it’s fair, but I still think we have a lot to prove,”
Leafs centre Auston Matthews, who turns 21 next week, told
Postmedia News. “We haven’t proven anything. It’s been two
years in the playoffs and it’s been two years with the same
results. They can do all the odds and stuff like that, but in
the end we still haven’t done anything. We still have a lot of
work to do.

The
Toronto Maple Leafs’ John Tavares speaks to the media at his
locker after signing on for a seven-year, $77 million contract on
Sunday July 1, 2018.
Jack Boland/Toronto
Sun/Postmedia Network

“A lot of people forget that we’re going into our third year
and (a lot of us) are 20, 21 years old. They put all these
expectations on us and it’s not necessarily a bad thing,
because we have high expectations for ourselves as well.
Obviously, individually you want to take a step forward. As a
team, you want to take a step forward.”

It’s not just the Leafs who will be feeling the crush of
expectations this season.

Back in 2015, the Hockey News predicted the Winnipeg Jets would
win the Cup this year. After they finished with 114 points in
the regular season — second-most in the league — and reached
the conference final, the magazine doubled down on that
prediction.

“I think every team it’s Stanley Cup or bust,” Winnipeg’s Mark
Scheifele told Postmedia News. “No one goes into the start of
the season saying we just want to make the playoffs this year.
No one says that. Obviously, only one team gets to raise the
Cup, but we have those expectations.”

For once, the expectations aren’t just a case of misplaced
optimism. While the rebuild is on for the Montreal Canadiens,
Ottawa Senators and Vancouver Canucks, the time is now for a
Canadian team to bring the Stanley Cup north of the border. And
when it comes to which team will do it, it’s all up for grabs.

At the end of the day, it’s what you do on the ice that
matters

Bodog betting site had Toronto as the pre-season favourites to
win the Cup, with Winnipeg ranked third behind Tampa Bay. But
don’t discount the Flames or the Oilers.

“I think at the start of the year, there’s so much pressure put
on one team that should do something,” said Scheifele. “At the
end of the day, it’s what you do on the ice that matters. After
Nashville made the final the year before, everyone was saying
Nashville is going to win the Cup. And you see how tough this
league is to win it.”

After an eventful summer where Calgary fired its coach, swapped
Dougie Hamilton out for Noah Hanifin, and then added sniper
James Neal, the Flames enter the season as perhaps the best
team in the Pacific Division. That is, if Edmonton doesn’t find
a way to rebound from last year’s mess and reclaim the top
spot.

When you have the best player in the world on your roster,
anything is a possibility.

“We’re looking forward to righting the ship and getting things
moving in the right direction again,” Edmonton’s Connor McDavid
told Postmedia News. “Last year wasn’t the team that we are. We
have a fresh start to prove that two years ago wasn’t a fluke.”

Indeed, there’s going to be surprises and disappointments.
There always is. No one expected that the Oilers would miss the
playoffs last year or that Vegas would win the division and
then reach the final. But for the first time in a while, the
window is open for a Canadian team to do something special.

And for once, it’s not a silly pipe dream.

“My mindset was always you only get so many years to play this
game and play in the NHL and try to win a Stanley Cup,” said
Tavares. “That’s always the goal. I know going through this
process (as a free agent), I just wanted to give myself the
opportunity to win a Stanley Cup with a team that was very
young and that had a large window to do that.”

mtraikos@postmedia.com

twitter.com/Michael_Traikos

* * *

LAMORIELLO RIPS TAVARES’ TRACK RECORD IN NEW
YORK

John Tavares will have to wait until Feb. 28 before making his
anticipated return to the city where he spent the first nine
years of his career. But when that time comes, it doesn’t sound
like the former New York Islanders captain should expect much
in the way of a video tribute from GM Lou Lamoriello

When asked about moving on from the Tavares era, Lamoriello was
blunt in his assessment on what the Islanders accomplished
during Tavares’ time in New York.

“There’s no aftermath. Players come and go,” Lamoriello told
New York Post at the Islanders’ golf outing Tuesday. “It’s
different if they had won championships. It’s different if they
had had a lot of success. They haven’t done much — and I don’t
say that with any disrespect. Haven’t been to the playoffs the
last couple years. Things haven’t worked out the way everybody
would have liked them to, from what my understanding is.

“So, an aftermath? There’s no such thing in my mind. What the
players we have here should be thinking about is not making the
playoffs last year, and that’s what the goal should be. Teams
win, not players. Individual players win some games, but teams
win championships. And that’s what we have to create.”

— Michael Traikos, Postmedia News

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