When the Tampa Bay Lightning were considering giving Steve Stamkos a night off as a healthy scratch in mid-season last year, part of the consideration was waiting until the Bolts were as far away from Toronto as possible to minimize the controversy, speculation and fallout from sitting the youngster.
So when did he sit? Jan. 9 in Anaheim, about as far away from Toronto as one can get and still be in the NHL.
Of course, that’s speaking geographically. Figuratively, you could argue that Long Island has become Antarctica to the rest of the NHL, which is why it may turn out to be the perfect place for John Tavares to begin his career as NHL player and franchise saviour.
Far away from the rumour-mill nonsense of the GTA.
Tavares, now 19, leads a four-pack of 2009 first-rounders to make the grade to start the NHL regular season, along with No. 2 pick Victor Hedman (Tampa Bay), No. 3 selection Matt Duchene (Colorado) and the fourth pick, Evander Kane of the Atlanta Thrashers. The Isles are also making noises about keeping around the 12th pick of the draft, Oshawa Generals defenceman Calvin de Haan, for regular season exposure, but de Haan is injured and also unsigned. (Photo: Tavares on draft day, 2009. Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)
Tavares, clearly, has the biggest job ahead of him of any of the top picks. Not only does he have to try to establish himself as an offensive threat on a thin team – his wingers on opening night are likely to be Sean Bergenheim and GTA product Matt Moulson – but he has to try to be part of the effort to save the franchise as well.
It's not dissimilar to the task that faced Sidney Crosby when he went to Pittsburgh in 2005. The Islanders are losing an estimated $20 million per season playing out of antiquated Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum and owner Charles Wang has told local officials that if he doesn’t get some good news on his massive Lighthouse Project by Saturday he’s going to start looking at offers to move the team.
Already this fall, the Isles played an exhibition game in Kansas City, although that contest drew fewer than 10,000 fans. Las Vegas would be another possibility, and if the NHL wins the Phoenix auction, at some point you’d have to wonder if Jim Balsillie and Hamilton would come up.
Five years after announcing the 150-acre Lighthouse Project, Wang still hasn’t seen a shovel in the ground. The scheme would include a new arena, commercial and residential development including a canal and all kinds of goodies, so naturally there are multiple layers of bureaucracy and politics to wade through, just as there would be in the GTA if such a plan were ever proposed.
Wang has complained the process is taking far too long, which is why he has set an unofficial deadline, and why local politicos are balking.
“We don’t tell them when they have to bring in a Stanley Cup,” said one town official quoted in Newsday.
That’s nasty. The once-great Isles have a lease at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum until 2015, but we already know from Phoenix the NHL doesn’t much worry about that stuff.
So into this maelstrom of insolvency and uncertainty goes Tavares. Stamkos had to deal with a lot of on-ice and off-ice issues in Tampa last season and survived, so theoretically so can Tavares.
It won’t be easy. But it helps that not as many people are watching the Islanders as once did.