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The New Jersey Devils Should Pursue John Tavares in Free Agency

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The top forward of the New York Islanders, John Tavares, is the biggest star who could hit free agency this year. Like all other NHL teams, the New Jersey Devils could absolutely benefit from his services. This post explains how good Tavares is and why the Devils should pursue him in free agency.

NHL: New Jersey Devils at New York Islanders
Imagine John Tavares in a Devils uniform. It can happen this summer.
Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports

The New Jersey Devils defied expectations last season by making it to the playoffs. As a result, the expectation for 2018-19 will be continued progress on top of making it to the postseason. A lot went right for the Devils to clinch their first playoff berth since 2012. What can the Devils to keep things going in the right direction? They can sign the biggest name to hit unrestricted free agency since a Russian man named Ilya in 2010. They can pursue New York Islanders center John Tavares. Should they? I think so. Let’s break it down.

Who is John Tavares and Why Would He Be Available?

John Tavares has been a “big name” since he was 14 years old. Way back then, a successful petition was made to the Ontario Hockey League to allow him to be drafted into major junior hockey despite being a year younger than the minimum age. The argument was that he was so far above everyone else at his level that he could handle the higher age groups. The OHL created the “exceptional player” rule just for Tavares to be drafted at that age; this rule was expanded to both the Western Hockey League and Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. Tavares did not disappoint as he was an instant success with the Oshawa Generals. As he was born on September 20, 1990, he missed the cut off for the 2008 NHL Draft by a few days. The NHL and NHLPA were petitioned to allow him a similar exception to enter that draft; but that failed. As did an attempt by the Toronto Marlies to add him to their lineup; the AHL denied that. Regardless, Tavares crushed it in 2008-09 and was the consensus and eventual #1 pick for the 2009 NHL Draft. The then-hapless New York Islanders drafted him and proceeded to try and build a team around him.

Tavares turned out to live up to the hype. The center was an offensive machine and a legitimate all-star. The Islanders eventually made the playoffs in the shortened 2013 season, where Tavares put up 47 points in 48 games. While the team missed it in 2013-14, Tavares put in some of his best performances to date in 2014-15 and 2015-16. The Isles not only make the playoffs in both years, but they advanced to the second round in 2016 with Tavares scoring the game winner in double overtime to eliminate Florida. It seemed to be onwards and upwards for the blue and orange. Tavares was their main man to take the Isles to new heights.

However, that did not happen. The team took a step back in 2016-17 and narrowly missed the playoffs by a point (94 points earned, second wild card team made it with 95). In 2017-18, the team took yet another step back as the team earned just 80 points in the standings - despite Tavares putting up another season of at least a point-per-game production. Tavares did not sign an extension and he has shown few signs of sticking around with the Isles. Tavares is now 27 going on 28 for next season. After nine seasons with the Isles with three playoff appearances and one playoff series win, its arguable that the Isles did not really succeed with the larger goal of building a contending team around him. Tavares did his job; management fell short. Should Tavares want to find success or at least want a change, then he will enter unrestricted free agency on July 1, 2018.

How Good is John Tavares?

So Tavares is a big name who has made an impact at every level of hockey he’s ever played in. Fine. But how good is he? Let’s start with the basics.

Tavares is coming off a season where he put up 37 goals, 47 assists, and 257 shots in 82 games per NHL.com. The total of 84 points put him tied for 16th in the NHL in points and tied for 17th in the NHL in shots on net with a veritable who’s who of forwards ahead of him in both categories. If we stretch out the range to the last three seasons, Tavares has put up a combined 98 goals and 122 assists for 220 points as well as 767 shots in 237 games. Again, Tavares ranked 16th among scorers from 2015-16 to 2017-18 with the 15 guys ahead of him consisting of the best forwards in the NHL (one point behind Phil Kessel and two points behind Tyler Seguin and Johnny Gaudreau) and finished 12th in shots. If we stretch out the range to include Tavares’ entire career since 2009-10 - 272 goals and 349 assists for 621 points in 669 games plus 2,110 shots on net - and Tavares is eighth in points and sixth in shots in the whole NHL in that time frame. That 621 point total is just one behind Steven Stamkos, two behind Anze Kopitar, and five behind Evgeni Malkin. No matter the time frame, Tavares has been among the elite forwards in the league when it comes to raw production and shooting. The guy has just kept finding the scoresheet over and over with the Islanders.

Of course, being an offensive player is more than just putting up points. Can he drive the play in 5-on-5 situations? According to his career stats at Natural Stat Trick, the answer appears to be “yes.” It doesn’t seem that way on the surface. In terms of attempts (Corsi), Tavares has finished above 50% CF% in five of his nine seasons. What ofshots? Tavares cracked 50% SF% in four of his nine seasons with the team. As for scoring chances and high-danger chances, when Tavares was on the ice, the Isles out did their opponents in five of his nine seasons for scoring chances and in six of his nine seasons for high-danger chances. Going back to goals, Tavares’ GF% was above 50% (meaning the Isles outscored their opponents) for five straight seasons until this one. While it is good that it happened in more seasons than not for Tavares’ career, that doesn’t point to Tavares being a positive contributor to the run of play. The relative stats do.

Relative stats represent the change in the stat when the player is on the ice compared to when he is not on the ice. Check this out from Tavares; numbers still from Natural Stat Trick with positive relative percentages and the stats above 50% highlighted in green.

John Tavares 5-on-5 Stats, Season by Season in his career
John Tavares 5-on-5 Stats, Season by Season in his career
Natural Stat Trick

That’s a lot of green! Even with a poor-looking 2017-18 season - especially after a dominant looking 2016-17 - when Tavares stepped on the ice, the Isles improved nearly across the board in these categories. More attempts were taken, which points to having the puck more often and in positions to try for shots. More shots were put on net, which is crucial to creating offense. More scoring chances and high-danger changes were taken by the Isles when he was out there. And, of course, more goals were scored too. So even with a 2017-18 season where the Isles were out-performed in each of these five categories when Tavares was out there, the nearly-entirely positive relative stats mean that things were much worse when Tavares was not on the ice. Whatever it was that went awry in 5-on-5 play last season, Tavares was not the problem.

So, yes, Tavares can be a contributor in 5-on-5 play. What about special teams? According to the ice time stats at NHL.com for the last three seasons, Tavares has been utilized a lot of the power play. Nobody has been utilized more as Tavares has with an average of 3:10 per game with a total PP ice time of 751:26; both are the most over the last three seasons by any Islander. A power play should have the team’s top producer on it. According to NHL.com, Tavares certainly produced with 26 power play goals (second to Anders Lee’s 31) and 67 power play points (the most on the Isles by 17). In this past season, Natural Stat Trick lists Tavares’ CF/60 and SF/60 rates as first on the Isles in power play situations, meaning that the Isles generated the most offense when he was on the ice. Those rates are much higher than it was in his previous seasons, which were still very good rates and expected for a top offensive player. Again, the underlying numbers and the production look good for Tavares.

With an average of 0:52 per game and a total of 204:56, Tavares has received some penalty killing shifts too. This happened quite a bit last season. Based on his PK CA/60 and SA/60 rates at Natural Stat Trick, it doesn’t seem like he was that good in shorthanded situations. That’s more than OK. His value is in attacking, not playing primarily in his own end of the rink in non-offensive situations.

And that value is among the best in the league. No, he’s not at the very, very top of scorers or offensive generators. But to continue to be a positive contributor in 5-on-5 play throughout nine Islanders seasons of varying success and rosters is impressive. Being a top twenty scorer in this past season, over the last season, and since his career began is impressive. Providing a lot of offense on the power play is impressive. He has not been injured all that much either, which is impressive by itself. Tavares may not be at the level of Sidney Crosby or Patrick Kane or Nikita Kucherov, but he is one of the best forwards in the league. Think of him of being on, say, Taylor Hall’s level. That’s how good he is.

Do the Devils Really Need John Tavares?

No, Tavares is not a defenseman. And he’s certainly going to provide a bit more - and will cost a bit more - than what secondary scoring is. His inclusion won’t solve any long-ish term concerns with goaltending and the depth of the team’s talent. Is this somebody the Devils could really use?

Yes. A thousand times yes. The Devils could absolutely use Tavares. And I think they really do need a player like him.

One of the biggest issues with the Devils in the 2017-18 season was their lack of production and consistent performances behind Hall. Many nights, if Hall was not having a good night, the team was often sunk on offense. Even if he was having a good night, his support was often limited. The Devils had one solid line of offense and three lines of hard working, hard skating players that chipped in spots but did not excel. This was highlighted further in the team’s first round series loss to Tampa Bay. The Lightning gave the Devils problems due to having so much of their offensive threats spread throughout the lineup. If Kucherov and Stamkos were quiet, the Point line certainly wasn’t. Killorn and Gourde provided further problems lest the Devils think they could just survive the top-two lines. Tampa Bay are contenders in part of having multiple threats on offense. Another great example would be Ray Shero’s former team, the Pittsburgh Penguins. A big reason why they’re such a difficult opponent and why they keep contending for Cups is that they have the ability to put Crosby, Malkin, and Kessel on separate lines to keep up constant waves of attack. Sure, there’s more to it than just that and team did draft Crosby and Malkin; but the Pens did not shy away from making a big move for Kessel because they knew they could sustain their strength with a first-line caliber talent that has no issue playing second or third line minutes.

You can see this concept with the 2011-12 Devils. Yes, Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk on the same line was nightmarish for any opponent. After that line was a unit commanded by Patrik Elias, who had a lot left in the tank then and was still putting up big numbers. So much so that he finished tenth in the NHL in scoring that season. This is not to say that a dominant first line is not important, but having more than one all-star caliber forward is more than a luxury, it can be crucial to a team’s success on offense.

John Tavares would immediately provide that to the Devils. All of a sudden, John Hynes has some actual flexibility for offensive centers and match-ups instead of hoping for the best out of Pavel Zacha or Travis Zajac. I like both, but Tavares is on another level. With Tavares, the Devils can split up the two stars, they can swap Tavares in for Hischier as needed, and Tavares will make his wingers better. Opponents will actually have a tougher time against the Devils; they just can’t focus on slowing down whatever line Hall is on. That helps out the Devils in a big way while addressing their need for more offensive talent than just Hall.

The Devils were not that good in 5-on-5 play in this past season and that showed up in ugly ways last season and in the playoffs. Tavares would help out a lot in this regard. Creating more difficult match-ups for opponents can lead to more nights where the Devils come out ahead in 5-on-5 play. Can he do it? Sure. Remember that Tavares has been a positive contributor in 5-on-5 play on the Islanders. I think he can do the same for a Devils team that really needs improvement in those areas based on this past season. Yes, a better CF% or SF% does not guarantee wins, but what they (and other stats) represents the results of a more dangerous and productive offense. And with a more dangerous and more productive offense, the Devils may not need to fret about every defensive miscue or hope their goalie is ready to stand on their head at a given notice. Tavares factors in there as well.

Speaking of offense, the addition of Tavares would also bolster the power play. While its success rate was good last season, the underlying numbers showed a power play unit that tended to either feast on the opponent or go into an offensive famine. Tavares can stave this off given his power play performances with the Isles. Surely, even Geoff Ward can figure out two power play units between Hall, Tavares, Kyle Palmieri, Zajac, Will Butcher, Sami Vatanen, Hischier, Marcus Johansson, and possibly Patrick Maroon. If he can’t, then it’s time to find a new power play coach. Even with the issues with the tactics, the man’s talent will likely lead to more shots and production for a power play that could always use more of both.

These are a lot of benefits that Tavares can provide on the ice. And these would go a long way for the Devils to try and reach the playoffs in 2018-19 and to do more beyond that season. Those are the expectations now and Tavares would help a lot as the Devils try to meet them. So, yes, they could really use him - just like every other team in the NHL.

What Will it Take for the Devils to Sign John Tavares?

A whole lot of money. Tavares will cost an incredible amount of money.

Since every NHL team could use a player like Tavares and players like him do not often reach unrestricted free agency, there’s a ton of interest that will only drive up the price to secure his services. Over at Lighthouse Hockey, Dan Sarencini has an updated compendium of all articles online dealing with Tavares and free agency. Almost everyone has considered him. A lot of those teams are interested to some degree.

If you’re looking for a number to shoot for, then I suggest starting with $10 million. According to CapFriendly, eighteen forwards made at least $9 million last season with nine of them earning at least $10 million. The names are similar to those around or ahead of Tavares in production in this past season and in recent seasons. Patrick Kane and Jonothan Towes are the league leaders at $13.8 million; Jamie Benn and Kopitar each made $13 million in 2017-18; Crosby made $10.9 million; and Corey Perry, Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Jakub Voracek made $10 million. I don’t think any of these players hit UFA status; their teams gave them deals to give them serious money to stay on their teams for quite some time. Tavares may not be on the exact level of those eight players. But when you consider other teams making pitches and offering contracts, Tavares and his people can leverage that to an eight-figure plus salary. Again, all-stars under the age of 30 do not hit free agency often enough to command lesser money. Surely, Tavares would like the security of term and possibly a no-movement clause to avoid being dealt unless he says otherwise. The Devils and any other non-Islanders team should be prepared to be willing to offer 7 year deals worth around $70 million total with the expectation that he’ll see that contract through to the end. In other words, anyone serious about getting Tavares to sign with them better get ready to back up a Brinks truck to his house.

It will also take a really good pitch by the Devils. If Tavares’ motivation for leaving the Islanders involves wanting a serious chance at the Stanley Cup, then the Devils are going to have to sell him on the fact that coming to Newark will not be repeat of what he just endured. I apologize for being gloomy, but Islanders were in a similar spot a few seasons ago with Tavares. The team finally made the playoffs after several years, a top forward helped greatly to make that possible, and it seemed like the team was on their way up. Then the last two seasons saw that crumble to a point where the top forward is looking for a new contract with someone else. The Devils would have to present to him how signing with New Jersey will not just going to make him even richer and he can still live in the general area he has been for his career, but also how signing with New Jersey will make them successful on the ice.

This will be a challenge considering the other teams that can make serious offers for Tavares. San Jose, for example, will have a lot of cap space free for next season with only one major restricted free agent to sign. Adding Tavares to that roster would not only help them, but the Sharks could credibly tell Tavares that they are a consistent playoff team (12 times out of the last 13 seasons), they have made it to the second round many times (8 of those 12 times), and they can contend in the West with his help. That would appeal greatly to somebody who desires playoff success (San Jose has way more of it than the Isles over the last 13 years) and a chance at the Stanley Cup.

This is not to say that the Devils should not try. This is to say that making the offer will require a bit more than just giving his agent a number.

Can the Devils Afford John Tavares?

Absolutely. Last season, I wrote how the Devils should give a big contract to Kevin Shattenkirk. They could afford such a deal then. They could afford a bigger deal even now.

Here is the current situation from my free agent primer yesterday. The Devils currently have 32 player contracts signed and $55.1 million committed for 2018-19. With the current salary cap ceiling of $75 million, the Devils have $19.898 million of cap space. While the Devils have several restricted free agents and one or two pending UFAs they may want to keep, the Devils should end up with well over $12 million in cap space. The salary cap ceiling is expected to rise, so the Devils will have even more room under their cap.

What this means is that the Devils could offer Tavares a near-max contract and still have some cap flexibility should he sign with the team. Not a lot of flexibility, but some. Keep in mind that only four Devils have contracts that go beyond three seasons from now, so the Devils would not be totally painting themselves into a corner cap-wise if they give a huge deal to Tavares. The space is there.

The money should also be there. The team is owned by a multi-billionaire Josh Harris, after all. Said multi-billionaire had this to say recently about free agents according to this Mike Morreale post at NHL.com:

If we want to be Stanley Cup champions, we need to add to the nucleus for sure,” Harris said. “In order to win, you need great players. But in a cap system, you only have a certain amount of dollars to spend, so the key is to spend it on the right players. The most reliable way to add to the nucleus, although it takes longer, is to draft and develop.

...

Ray [Shero] is great at identifying talent, along with [Fitzgerald and Hynes], so for the right player, we’re in. It’s not a matter of the money but a matter of finding the right player.

As established earlier in this post, Tavares is so good that I’d be surprised to learn that he wouldn’t be “the right player.” He is more of a “right player” than, say, a defenseman named John (and I don’t mean Moore (OK, I also mean Moore, but I mean the other one - I’ll write about why later)). The point remains, if Shero and his people establish that Tavares is one to open the checkbooks for, then the checkbooks will be opened.

The timing is also just right to add a big piece to move the team forward. Hall is coming off one of the best seasons in New Jersey Devils history and he’s 26. Kyle Palmieri put up another 20-goal season and is 27. Ray Shero went out and made a big trade last season for Sami Vatanen, who is 26. On the other side of 30, Cory Schneider, Andy Greene, and Travis Zajac all serve significant roles on the team. As the Devils have been incorporating younger talent, the window is pretty much now for the other significant players on this roster. This is not to say that they’ll stink again or that they will suffer without Tavares, but adding Tavares strengthens this core enough to make them real players in the Metropolitan rather than a team that started off hot and held on to the very end of the season.

Again, yes, the Devils can afford Tavares.

What Are the Issues in Getting John Tavares?

Other than actually trying to get Tavares to sign a contract, which will be a challenge and maybe not likely, there would be some issues that would arise.

First and foremost, the Devils may be paying for peaks that already happened. A player’s peak is generally around their early to mid-20s. Tavares is past that; he’ll be 28 in 2018-19. A long contract will take him to his mid-30s. One of the big questions any team should ask themselves about Tavares is how they see player by the end of a 7-year contract. Will he be contributing enough as he gets older? If he’s getting, say, $10 million per year on average, then is it acceptable if he’s performing at a level that’s more like $7 million per year? What if it’s like a $5 million player? These are the things any team should consider when trying to sign a free agent for a long term. This is especially true seeing that Tavares could command an eight-figure salary and/or cap hit. If the Devils do not believe he can be an effective player, then that should be a big enough red flag to stay away. Given that top players tend to still be viable contributors as they age and that Tavares has not been injured all that often, I would bet on Tavares being a very good player as he ages.

Second, signing Tavares could cause some issues for the Devils’ cap situation in 2019 or 2020. Taylor Hall will see what he gets, what those eighteen $9+ million forwards got, and demand an extension in that range accordingly. Nico Hischier will be up for what could be a massive extension when his entry level contract ends in 2020. The team will need some defensemen and that can get pricey. The Devils will have flexibility, but not at the level of what they had where they could move a few picks and add a $4.85 million cap hit (a.k.a. the Johansson trade) like it is no big deal. If the Devils are comfortable with Shero needing to be a bit more creative and judicious with other roster decisions, then this is fine. I think it would be; Shero has not made too many moves that went awry so far.

Third, the Devils will still have their glaring need for left-sided defensemen Not that the free agent market in 2018 is filled with those players, but signing Tavares to a big contract means less money to spend in that regard. The better option may be to make a trade for that role anyway, which could open up if the Devils do sign Tavares. So this may not be much of an issue at all.

Fourth, and this isn’t so much an issue it doesn’t mean the Devils can stop doing what they have been doing.

Yes, it is true that the cheapest and most efficient way to get top-tier talent is through the draft. Signing Tavares is expensive, but this doesn’t mean the Devils can fail on a draft class. Every team that wants to succeed for more than a flash in the pan needs to draft well whether they’re in the lottery, in the middle of the first round, or picking late in every round. The Devils are still going to have to hit on their picks no matter whether they get Tavares or not, or where they may be in their current build, to keep on being a good team. I think they should try and do that with Tavares on the roster than not.

Yes, it is true that giving a lot of money to one player can blow up in one’s face. But this is where player evaluation really takes hold. The Devils should be very familiar with what Tavares has done on the ice and they will cross-reference that against their own numbers, their tape, and other factors. This would need to be done for any free agent, whether it’s a former #1 draft pick that met the hype or a NHL/AHL tweener like Brian Gibbons.

Yes, it is true that there is value in establishing a style of play and getting players to fit into that. They’ve made a lot of strides towards being fast, attacking, and supportive. Tavares would definitely add to that, but that’s got to continue to apply up and down the lineup. Sure, a few exceptions (Maroon) work and can be useful in spots. But the Devils cannot give up on the plan after one playoff appearance and one huge free agency get.

Your Take

Overall, I think the benefits out-weight the literal costs of signing John Tavares. Getting him to New Jersey will be a challenge in of itself. Only Tavares and his people knows what he wants and it remains to be seen if the Devils can provide it. But the cap space is there, the money is there, Tavares is very, very, very good at what he does, and the Devils can absolutely use that in their lineup even as he approaches 30 years old for the 2020-21 season. There are few times where a team can sign an all-star forward as a free agent. The time is now for the Devils to make a big move like this one. It may not happen again for some time. I (and several followers of the @AAtJerseyBlog) believe that the Devils should absolutely pursue Tavares in free agency.

That’s how I see it. What do you think? Should the Devils go after Tavares in free agency? Do you think he’ll become a free agent? Do you think the Devils have a real chance in getting him? If you were Ray Shero, how much would you offer John Tavares (assume Josh Harris told you that money is not an issue)? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the Devils possibly signing John Tavares in the comments. Thank you for reading.