Top NHL free agent John Tavares headed to Maple Leafs for $77 million

By John Wawrow
Associated Press
John Tavares

John Tavares is bidding Long Island goodbye for a chance to play for his hometown Toronto Maple Leafs.

The New York Islanders captain agreed to $77 million, seven-year deal with Toronto and announced his long-awaited decision by posting a letter on his Twitter account about an hour after the free-agency signing period opened on Sunday.

“The island, the fans, the organization, my teammates will always be special to me and my family,” wrote Tavares, who is from Toronto’s suburb of Mississauga. “But it’s time to live my childhood dream here in Toronto.”

The 27-year-old Tavares was the highest-profile player on the market, and spent last week meeting with the Islanders, San Jose, Toronto, Dallas, Tampa Bay and Boston. By waiting until Sunday, Tavares gave up the opportunity to sign an eight-year extension with the Islanders.

Adding Tavares is a boon to the Maple Leafs, who already feature 2016 first-round draft pick, Auston Matthews.

And his departure presents a heavy blow to the Islanders, who selected Tavares with the No. 1 pick in the 2009 draft. In a bid to retain Tavares, the team underwent an organizational makeover in recent months under still relatively new owners Scott Malkin and Jon Ledecky. They hired Lou Lamoriello as president of hockey operations and fresh Stanley Cup winner Barry Trotz as coach.

Tavares’ signing overshadowed the day’s most notable other deal: James van Riemsdyk’s return to Philadelphia on a five-year, $35 million contract.

The five-time 20-goal-scorer spent his first three NHL seasons with the Flyers before being traded to Toronto in June 2012. The 6-foot-3, 217-pound left-winger provides the Flyers with more scoring punch on the power play and could be a long-term replacement for Wayne Simmons, who has one year left on his contract.

Veteran defenseman Jack Johnson is heading to Pittsburgh after agreeing to a five-year, $16.25 million contract. The 31-year-old Johnson is a 12-year NHL veteran, who spent the past six-plus seasons with the Columbus Blue Jackets.

The Chicago Blackhawks made a splash by signing former Carolina starting goalie Cam Ward, forward Chris Kunitz and defenseman Brandon Manning. Ward provides the Blackhawks veteran insurance after starter Corey Crawford missed most of last season with an upper-body injury.

The Buffalo Sabres filled a need at goaltender by signing former St. Louis Blues backup Carter Hutton to a three-year, $8.25 million deal. Hutton will share the starting duties with Linus Ullmark, who is pegged to make the jump to Buffalo after spending the past three seasons developing in the minors.

Forward David Perron returned to St. Louis by signing a four-year, $16 million deal after setting career highs with 50 assists and 66 points last season with the expansion Vegas Golden Knights. St. Louis also signed center Tyler Bozak to a three-year, $15 million contract, and Sabres former backup goalie Chad Johnson.

Other notable deals:

* Tomas Plekanec is back in Montreal after agreeing to a one-year, $2.25 million deal with the Canadiens. He spent his first 13-plus seasons in Montreal before being traded to Toronto in February.

* The Minnesota Wild reached agreements to sign forwards Matt Hendricks and Eric Fehr to one-year contracts.

* The Detroit Red Wings agreed to sign goalie Jonathan Bernier and Thomas Vanek. The 29-year-old Bernier signed a three-year contract after going 19-13-3 in 37 games with the Colorado Avalanche. Vanek signed a one-year, $3 million contract to return to the Detroit Red Wings, where he spent a portion of the 2016-17 season. Vanek opened last season with Vancouver and closed it in Columbus.

* The Arizona Coyotes signed All-Star defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson to an eight-year contract extension that averages $8.25 million per year.

Once the free-agency frenzy is completed, the focus will shift to ongoing trade speculation and negotiations involving teams attempting to lock up star players to long-term contracts. Those players include Sabres center Ryan O’Reilly, Ottawa captain Erik Karlsson and Nashville defenseman Ryan Ellis.