The decision by John Tavares in Summer 2018 to leave the New York Islanders and join his hometown Toronto Maple Leafs ignited a war between fan bases that had not been seen since when Darcy Tucker blew out Mike Peca’s knee in the 2002 playoffs. The move ensured the two teams would be compared against each other for years, as the fortunes of both franchises were set to be significantly impacted by JT’s switch.
Hurt and incapable of processing it healthily, Islanders fans couldn’t, or wouldn’t, comprehend why their captain would leave a team that had made the playoffs just thrice in his nine years with the club, despite him being one of the leading scorers in the league during his tenure as an Isle. Fans burned his jerseys, called him childish names, filmed truly cringeworthy spite videos, and shouted hateful chants at him in his return to Long Island. In every way they looked like the losers.
But the New York Islanders just made the third round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the second year in a row.
Now, I don’t think losing John Tavares was the key that unlocked the Islanders’ success, although Isles fans who don’t understand the dynamics of correlation and causation will try to convince you otherwise. The most important thing to remember about that summer of 2018 was a few weeks before Tavares came to Toronto, recently-appointed Islanders GM Lou Lamoriello added reigning Stanley Cup champion Barry Trotz and goaltending guru Mitch Korn to the team, turning the Isles from a do-everything-mediocre team into one that acknowledged its offensive shortcomings and bought into a stifling defensive system.
A system that is greater than the sum of its parts.
A system where cohesion on ice bests talent on paper.
A system where every player knows their role and is played to their strengths.
Since Trotz’s hiring, the Isles have the lowest goals against per game in the league and the 9th-best points percentage. The high octane Maple Leafs, for reference, have the 8th-best points percentage over the same timeframe.
If, at the beginning of this season, you printed out the 23-man rosters for all 31 NHL teams, then had 31 knowledgeable hockey fans each draft a team, where would the Paper Isles go? Around 20th? How about the Paper Leafs? Around 5th-7th?
It just goes to show that you can have all the on-paper talent in the world, but without structure, execution, preparation, discipline, adaptation, and sacrifice it does not matter. Are the Islanders as talented as the Leafs? No. But have they shown to be the better TEAM? Without question.
I do not profess to have the answers that will turn things around for this franchise. The issues seem to be more between the ears than anything else. These 2020-21 Leafs were the deepest, most well-balanced team any of us have seen in the salary cap era, but they somehow allowed the 18th-best team in the league to rally off three straight victories to eliminate them from playoff contention, in a year where their path to the finals for once did not go through Boston or Tampa Bay. It is an inexcusable missed opportunity.
And the team from whom we stole their captain is now up 5-0 in playoff series wins.
It turns out the Leafs are the losers after all.