As you might have heard, John Tavares is making his first return to Nassau Coliseum as a member of the visiting Toronto Maple Leafs on Thursday (7 p.m. ET, streaming on ESPN+). To help preview all angles coming into (and out of) the matchup against the New York Islanders, we gathered our panel to answer five questions (click on each question to jump ahead to those answers):
What should Isles fans do Thursday night?
Greg Wyshynski, senior NHL writer: Boo the snake. Here are the facts, as we know them, about John Tavares from last season: He did not, at any point, give any indication leading up to the trade deadline that he wanted to be anywhere but Long Island. ("I had no feelings for playing for another team," he told MSG Network.) Look at the haul the Ottawa Senators got for Matt Duchene and Mark Stone, and consider how much better Tavares is than both of them. Then, when free agency arrived, Tavares turned around (and, in wrestling parlance, turned heel) and signed with the Toronto Maple Leafs, because Brendan Shanahan charmed him and he used to sleep under Leafs bed sheets as a kid in Ontario and, most damningly, he felt Toronto would give him a better chance to win a Stanley Cup. Again: He went from being unable to see himself as anything but an Islander to turning his back on the fans and chasing a title with the Maple Leafs in the span of roughly four months.
On Thursday night, as Tavares returns, I wish catharsis for Islanders fans. They love a franchise that far too many deem unworthy of love, that far too many dismiss as inferior, and John Tavares underscored that sentiment. There will be a time when Tavares will be appreciated and celebrated again -- and I say this as a Devils fan who took that journey when Zach Parise went home to Minnesota as an unrestricted free agent. The time for appreciation is not now. Now is the time to jeer until your throats are raw, to pepper the stands with signs referencing traitorous behavior, to drop Tavares stickers on urinal cakes like the Capitals fans used to do for Sidney Crosby when the Penguins visited D.C. He made his choice. It's OK, for one night, to express loudly that you believe he made the wrong one.
Emily Kaplan, national NHL reporter: John Tavares is going to be booed every time he touches the puck. I get it. I'm more concerned about what happens during the tribute video (the actual team-created one, not the viral "Dear John/Pajama Boy" bit that circulated this week). I know there is a faction of Islanders fans who understand Tavares' decision, if not respect it. The others can boo him all game if they want, but I would hope the 90 seconds when the video plays on the jumbotron -- the classy move by the organization to thank Tavares for his service -- can be a reprieve, or recognition that feelings can be complicated, and that's OK. Appreciation and pure, venomous rage can coexist.
Chris Peters, NHL draft and prospects writer: Whatever they feel like. I think John Tavares is one of the franchise's all-time greats in a franchise that has had a lot of amazing players. He was the show for far too long in his career, and I know there are a lot of people out there who feel like he was wasted either by mismanagement or some missed opportunities along the way. There are others who will never forgive him for leaving, and for that I can't begrudge them. Passion for one's team is often going to trump any allegiance to the individual, especially when the end is as unceremonious as it was. I hope there are some cheers mixed in with the boo birds because Tavares had a very special career and brought his best to the ice every night regardless of where the Isles were in the standings.
Dimitri Filipovic, hockey analytics writer: I'm generally on the player's side of these things, because I feel like they don't really owe anything to the team. It's a business, and when the shoe is on the other foot, the team won't think twice about turning their back on a player once they're not of sufficient use to them any longer. But that's the rational, emotionally detached view, and fanhood is anything but. So Islanders fans at the game should do whatever they feel like doing. I'm all for them having some fun with the snark and vitriol, because it makes for great theater and heightens the viewing experience. It would've been kind of sad if the team were as bad as most people thought they'd be after he left. But given the success they've had without him, it's actually a great opportunity to come up with creative chants, put together hilarious posters and, of course, deafeningly boo him whenever he touches the puck.
Victoria Matiash, fantasy analyst: Should? In the spirit of self-interest, Islanders fans should politely clap for their former captain/Hart Trophy finalist upon first intro, with a view to his nine years of commitment and effort, because this skilled Maple Leafs squad plays better when ornery. That's been particularly true of the club of late. Boisterous vocal abuse sent their beloved teammate's way will only provide additional incentive. With an eye to finishing in their current position atop the Metro Division, Barzal & Co. should endeavor to win as many games remaining as possible -- including one against a somewhat tired team coming off a 6-2 win over the Oilers less than 24 hours earlier. Why light an unnecessary fire? But there's zero chance that's how it goes down Thursday night, since Isles fans, like devoted others the world over, are more passionate than sensible. So expect a torrent of boos every time Tavares so much as twitches in view.
Ben Arledge, associate NHL editor: He'll get booed all night long. Every time he touches the puck, every time he makes a play, every time he skates past the glass and every time he jumps over the boards. It'd be a major upset if it goes just about any other way. Yeah, it'd be nice to see some Islander fans remember the good days, but they won't, and it is what it is. Tavares is a superstar who opted to leave his team for greener pastures, and he'll hear about it. And that's totally fine. But hey, anything is better than some Rangers fans reportedly chirping Ryan McDonagh recently as he carried the puck for the Lightning (he was traded, folks, c'mon) or the Columbus faithful raining boos down on Artemi Panarin because he might leave after the season. (OK, yeah, he's probably leaving.)
Sachin Chandan, ESPN the Magazine researcher: The Islanders fans need a night like this to just let everything out of their system. Having a good team helps, but this is the game that has been circled on the calendar since the schedule came out. The fans will boo Tavares every time he touches the puck, and likely throw some pointed chants at him. The Coliseum will be, and should be, the loudest it's been in years. Future meetings with the Maple Leafs won't carry the same level of venom (unless they meet in the conference finals), but this is the one night to blow off all of their steam. And for Islander fans who have been kicked around for years, they deserve their catharsis.
Who wins the Cup first: Isles or Leafs?
Greg Wyshynski, senior NHL writer: The Maple Leafs are going to win the Stanley Cup in the next five years. It's an inevitability. The team is rich with young talent, has added key veterans in Tavares and Jake Muzzin, and I'm confident that GM Kyle Dubas is going to add the right pieces to bring their blue line closer to a championship level. I will lament the loss of "plan the parade" and "1967" jokes, but I'm keen on the Leafs breaking the drought (and, frankly, with seeing an American from the Arizona desert leading them there). Of course, the dream is to have the Leafs and Islanders both continue to improve and meet in the playoffs at some point for the Tavares Referendum.
Emily Kaplan, national NHL reporter: Disclaimer: I've underestimated the Islanders for too long this season. I didn't think the goaltending would hold up. I miscalculated the impact a coach could have on instilling a defensive structure (with essentially the same group that allowed a league-high 3.57 goals per game last season). All of that said, the Maple Leafs are better positioned to win now (as in, the next two years). For me, it comes down to the one-two punch they have at center with Auston Matthews and Tavares, and overall forward depth. New York has a deeper prospect pool and is better poised for a dynastic stretch, though that might not begin for another few seasons.
Chris Peters, NHL draft and prospects writer: I think Toronto is still a player or two away from winning the Cup, and as good as the Isles have been this season, I think their depth doesn't match up well enough for the next few years. Assuming Toronto is not, in fact, cursed, I'll take their forward depth and a solid, healthy season from Frederik Andersen -- at some point -- bringing the Stanley Cup back to Ontario before it gets hoisted above Long Island.
Dimitri Filipovic, hockey analytics writer: The Leafs, just because they're closer to it as currently constructed. They've got a brutal roadmap ahead of them to achieve it this season, seeing as they'll likely have to get through both the Bruins and the Lightning just to make it to the conference final. But they also boast an absolutely devastating amount of offensive firepower and a top-flight goalie to cover for a lot of what they give up coming the other way. It's very well within the realm of possibility that they get hot and make some serious noise this postseason. While the future is promising for the Islanders and they've been a tremendous story this season, they've got some work to do before they legitimately enter that discussion.
Victoria Matiash, fantasy analyst: On paper, Toronto is one top-four, right-handed shooting defenseman, and one big, physical forward away from winning it all. The Islanders aren't that close. The Leafs also trump New York in talent up front, plus in enduring reliability in net with Andersen. And the cream of that forward crop is sticking for a few years yet.
Ben Arledge, associate NHL editor: Toronto. It's been fun to watch the Islanders run to the top of the division this season, and they have some really great building blocks for the future, both on the team and in the system. However, Toronto is built to win right now, with probably the best one-two punch down the middle, a plethora of scoring threats, one of the most underappreciated stars in the league in Mitch Marner, a Norris Trophy candidate in Morgan Rielly and stout goaltending from Andersen. The Isles are headed in the right direction in the post-Tavares era, but the Maple Leafs have the Cup edge right now. Now, one of them just has to beat Tampa Bay.
Sachin Chandan, ESPN the Magazine researcher: Look, it's probably Toronto due to the sheer amount of dynamic talent they have locked up for the next few years. However, the Islanders might have a chance to steal a few rounds this year. The playoff system gives the Metro teams an edge, as two of Toronto-Boston-Tampa Bay will be knocked out (and exhausted) by the conference final. Second, the Islanders have had the best goaltending in the league with a .939 5-on-5 save percentage and a vastly improved team defense, only surrendering 30.9 shots against per game as opposed to a league worst 35.6 last season. Both could be ingredients for a surprise playoff run.
Who is the X factor for each team's playoff success?
Greg Wyshynski, senior NHL writer: For the Islanders, I'll go with the man behind the bench, Barry Trotz. He's the coach of the year and arguably the greatest asset the team has not named Mat Barzal. Trotz did such an outstanding job for the Capitals as a bench boss last postseason, recovering nicely from a bad decision to sit Braden Holtby at the start of the playoffs and erasing years of criticism for previous postseason failures. He has the Islanders playing such an effective brand of defensive, fundamental hockey and needs to keep them on that path in the playoffs.
For the Leafs, it's the aforementioned American from the Arizona desert, Auston Matthews. Please recall his disastrous playoff series against the Boston Bruins last year, in which he followed a 34-goals-in-63-games season with one goal and one assist in seven games, getting checked into oblivion and failing to be a difference maker. Seeing as how the Bruins appear to be on the horizon again this April, Matthews needs to exert his will on that series and every other one the Leafs are in -- provided they advance, of course.
Emily Kaplan, national NHL reporter: As long as goaltending holds up in New York -- and by this point, I have no reason to believe it won't -- my X factor for New York is Mat Barzal. The Islanders have been a pleasant surprise with even production (they have eight players with double-digit goal totals), but they'll need their star center to set the tone. Barzal has only 10 points in his last 20 games, and that's not going to cut it this spring.
For Toronto? Their defense as a whole scares me a bit. I know they would have liked to have added another right-handed defenseman at the trade deadline, and I wonder if that might cost them.
Chris Peters, NHL draft and prospects writer: For the Maple Leafs, I think William Nylander is the guy who can really help them take things up another level if he can bust out of his post-contract dispute funk. You would have to hope, for his sake at least, that he's up to speed and producing by that point in the season. The more guys you can have contributing, the better, and when Nylander is at his best, he can contribute.
For the Islanders, it's all about the goaltenders. Can Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss carry this team through the postseason? Lehner has played a total of 49 minutes in the postseason at the NHL level. Thomas Greiss has appeared in 12 Stanley Cup playoff games, and none since 2016. They have been the X factor all year for the Isles, and the only chance the team has is if these two netminders can carry their exceptional .928 team save percentage into the playoffs.
Dimitri Filipovic, hockey analytics writer: I'm tempted to go with the goalies, especially for the Islanders, who currently lead the league in save percentage at both 5-on-5 and overall by a mile. Instead, let's go with the young wingers on both teams. For New York, it's almost unconscionable that they're intentionally choosing not to have at least one of (but really both) Michael Dal Colle and Josh Ho-Sang in the lineup right now. It's no coincidence that the team's underlying numbers skyrocketed when they were up in December and January, and that they've once again dipped since they were demoted -- particularly since it's not like this team is flush with talent up front, seeing as Mat Barzal is currently inexplicably having to lug around wingers like Leo Komarov, Andrew Ladd, and Tom Kuhnhackl.
While the Leafs don't have such a problem, I'll be curious to see what combinations they eventually settle on. It's a big stretch of games for guys like Andreas Johnsson and Kasperi Kapanen, both of whom are incredibly talented players the Leafs will rely upon for secondary scoring in the playoffs but who might eventually price themselves out of Toronto if they keep trending in their current directions.
Victoria Matiash, fantasy analyst: Defenseman Jake Gardiner has to be healthy and effective. Healthy, foremost, since the Leafs' defender is currently shelved for weeks with a bad back. With any luck, that adds up to three or four in recuperation, and not an indefinite period through spring. And while much maligned (often undeservedly) in the market, Gardiner is a key piece on Toronto's blue line, a state of affairs magnified when he was so very terrible in the team's Game 7 loss to the Bruins last go-around. The play of Igor Ozhiganov, Justin Holl and Martin Marincin won't suffice in taking the Leafs far, particularly with Travis Dermott now hobbled with a wracked shoulder. They need Gardiner at his best.
On the Islanders' side, it comes down to goaltending. Ranking bottom-third in goals-for, they're stingiest of all in goals-against (2.32). We can't expect this offense to instantaneously erupt in any rough, multigame affairs against the best in the East. Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss need to be superb. One of them, anyway.
Ben Arledge, associate NHL editor: It's definitely the goaltending for New York. At the end of the day, the Islanders will go as far as Lehner and Greiss can take them. They've combined for a .939 even-strength save percentage this season, the highest in the NHL. If they are ready to rock come April, the sky's the limit. If they aren't, there are too many quality Eastern Conference teams waiting to capitalize.
For the Maple Leafs, I'm between Frederik Andersen and Morgan Rielly. Obviously, goaltending is everything in the playoffs. If you don't have it, you aren't going anywhere. But Rielly is a big part of what makes this team tick. Only Brent Burns has more points than Rielly's 61 among blueliners, and he is currently tied for the goal lead among defensemen, with 15 -- despite averaging roughly two minutes less per night than the other stat-leading defensemen.
Sachin Chandan, ESPN the Magazine researcher: When I think X factor, I think of someone other than a star, whom the other team knows is a difference maker. The Islanders did not make a trade on deadline day but did get winger Andrew Ladd back from an ankle injury. Ladd, who has played 64 playoff games as a member of two Cup-winning teams, will be expected to carry significant minutes on Barzal's line, as he did Tuesday night against Calgary.
For the Maple Leafs, defenseman acquisition Jake Muzzin will need to step up his production. After a quick start, Muzzin has notched only three points in his past 10 games. However, the Maple Leafs have gone 4-1-1 against current playoff teams. Possession-wise, Muzzin has a 53.71 Corsi for percentage in close situations, third-best among Leafs blueliners, and also carries Cup-winning experience from his time with the Kings.
Who is the next Tavares-level "traitor"?
Greg Wyshynski, senior NHL writer: As a Devils fan, I hate saying this ... but there's a reasonable chance that Taylor Hall heads elsewhere in 2020 when his contract with New Jersey is up. I want to believe that his relationship with coach John Hynes, the way the organization embraced him after the Oilers jettisoned him, and what one hopes is the franchise's upward trajectory with players like Nico Hischier, Ty Smith, Jesper Boqvist and whoever they draft this summer are enough to entice him to sign long term. Then again, maybe he has a childhood photo of him sleeping under, like, Boston Bruins bedsheets. Regardless, if he leaves, he'll get Parise'd, if not Tavares'd, in Newark.
Emily Kaplan, national NHL reporter: I don't see any shocks in this summer's free-agent class. Joe Pavelski will want to stay in San Jose, if they'll have him. Erik Karlsson hasn't been a Shark long enough to classify him as a traitor if he bolts. Ditto William Karlsson (Vegas) and Jeff Skinner (Buffalo), though I know both players are comfortable with their current teams. The next possibility I see would be Taylor Hall in summer of 2020. The Devils desperately want to build around him, but the question is, does he believe in New Jersey?
Chris Peters, NHL draft and prospects writer: Sergei Bobrovsky, though I wonder how vitriolic Jackets fans would be if he leaves for free agency this year. Bobrovsky may not have been drafted by the Blue Jackets, but he has been with the club for seven seasons, has won two Vezina Trophies and helped the franchise to its most successful era. If the team doesn't manage to win this year having gone all in at the trade deadline -- essentially forced to do it because their two biggest stars, Bobrovsky and Artemi Panarin, were unwilling to make the long-term commitment -- there's going to be some outrage directed at the guy who had been with the team the longest. Bobrovsky has not been as good this season, either. It would be a particularly bitter end if it does indeed end without a title. I could see a lot of hurt feelings if he bolts with no silver in the Blue Jackets' team trophy cabinet.
Dimitri Filipovic, hockey analytics writer: I'm hoping that it'll be one of these high-priced restricted free agents who goes ahead and finally signs an offer sheet with another team this summer. I've been programmed to be skeptical that it'll actually happen, given all the false hope in recent years, but people in the know seem to genuinely believe that we'll really see one this summer, given the current landscape. There are so many young players set to make obscene amounts of money, and a number of them are on teams that are facing a potential salary-cap bind. I think it'd be particularly amazing to see what would happen if the Islanders went out and signed Mitch Marner to a poison pill contract, just to try to get back at the Leafs this summer.
Pierre Becquey, deputy editor: The year is 2026. Connor McDavid returns to his Ontario roots as an unrestricted free agent. In this scenario, Toronto has plenty of cap room available due to the departure the year before of one ... John Tavares.
Victoria Matiash, fantasy analyst: 2022 is still a way off, but Aleksander Barkov is bound to shatter hearts in Sunrise, Florida, when he chooses to play in a more high-profile NHL market. Earning an average annual salary of $5.9 million before then, which is nuts considering everything the 23-year-old captain brings to the ice, he's bound to eventually cash in large. Those loyal to the team will undoubtedly feel betrayed by the talented centerman, drafted second overall in 2013. Goodness forbid the Panthers come close before then, infusing additional acid to the inevitable breakup after nine years -- ring familiar? -- of service.
Ben Arledge, associate NHL editor: Well, I don't expect it to come next year. This isn't the type of thing that happens annually in the NHL. Yes, Bobrovsky and Panarin might both be gone, and it'll hurt -- even though both already have one foot out the door -- but if you want to talk about some real sting, Taylor Hall immediately comes to mind. He'll be the next fleeing star to really tick off a fan base and truly set a franchise back a bit with his departure. At the end of next season, the 2017-18 MVP will be a free agent, assuming he doesn't re-sign before then. He might sign that deal, given how much the Devils want to keep him, but with the direction the Devils are headed, I'd be surprised if Hall doesn't test the free-agency waters. And it could go almost the same way. Fans hang on to hope that their star will come back. A contender with more short-term Cup aspirations swoops in. Team's outlook plummets. Fan base shuns the guy who carried them in recent seasons.
Sachin Chandan, ESPN the Magazine researcher: Artemi Panarin with the Columbus fans. Panarin is a difference maker for the Blue Jackets, but he already heard a smattering of boos back in January when his agent announced that Panarin will be a free agent this summer, and with the Blue Jackets deciding not to trade him for anything back. It's his right to be a free agent, I'm not attacking that, but it's easy to see why Blue Jackets fans will have bad feelings if he leaves.
How should the Islanders spend all that cap space this summer?
Greg Wyshynski, senior NHL writer: By tendering the largest offer sheet they can to Mitch Marner of the Toronto Maple Leafs. For ... reasons.
But seriously, if Artemi Panarin isn't dead set on taking his talents to South Beach and truly wants to play in New York, the Islanders finding a way to get him on this roster in the long term would be worth the investment -- provided, you know, Barry Trotz hasn't been spoiled for him by countrymen Evgeny Kuznetsov and Alex Ovechkin.
Emily Kaplan, national NHL reporter: I imagine the priority is re-signing captain Anders Lee, and there's no reason that deal shouldn't get done. The Islanders should keep at least one of Brock Nelson and Jordan Eberle (both UFAs). They can sign both, as long as neither breaks the bank. The Islanders checked in on some of the big names at the deadline, but they weren't willing to give up future assets. Well, two of those names will be available again this summer: Artemi Panarin and Matt Duchene. Either player would be a sensational fit. I'd definitely prefer Duchene over Nelson as the complement to Barzal down the center.
Chris Peters, NHL draft and prospects writer: Spend cautiously. The biggest fish worth going after is Artemi Panarin due to his age and production. He could be a game-changer for them and is absolutely worth the big ticket he's sure to command. Otherwise, there are some moves that could be done internally that may not be as expensive. Getting Robin Lehner signed to an extension, preferably something on the shorter term, is a start. I also think the club needs to re-up captain Anders Lee. He's a good character fit for the team and has been through thick and thin with the franchise while bringing a steady, consistent effort there. Aside from that, the Isles don't need to go for broke on the open market. That's where things can get a little tricky, and I'd rather see them cultivate a very strong prospect pool, focus on developing talent and let some of those guys naturally matriculate to the roster instead of spending all sorts of money on big-name, long-term free agents -- unless that free agent is Artemi Panarin.
Dimitri Filipovic, hockey analytics writer: They need to swing for the fences and try to add another star player who can give Mat Barzal a legitimate running mate. Panarin is the most logical name because he's the most skilled player on the open market, he's already expressed interest in coming to New York and he represents the exact type of talent infusion they so desperately need. I know that spending big money in free agency is risky because you're typically paying aging players for what they've already done and not what they'll do moving forward, but Panarin's case might be the exception. Even though he's going to be 28 in the first month of next season -- meaning that any seven-year deal he signs will take him into his mid-30s -- his body hasn't accrued the typical wear and tear you'd expect of a player his age. He's been in the NHL for only four seasons now, and before that he was playing a much lighter KHL schedule that was typically in the ballpark of 40-50 games. Combine that with an elusive playing style that protects him from taking too much physical punishment, and there's no reason to believe that he won't age gracefully and productively well into his 30s.
Victoria Matiash, fantasy analyst: First, re-sign Anders Lee. Not only because he's a good fit, but because losing a captain in a second consecutive summer would be deflating to several degrees. Re-upping with pending UFA Brock Nelson, underrated outside of Long Island, strikes as another solid move. Beyond that, a wait-and-see approach might serve best. The Islanders have exceeded expectations this season -- this isn't a knock on the club; more so our fault for underestimating the impact of Lou, Trotz, Lehner, etc. There's value in letting matters marinate. Give management a chance to gauge what's really on board. That being said, if Artemi Panarin wants to sign, you're not turning him away.
Ben Arledge, associate NHL editor: I expect the Islanders to bring in at least one key piece. As noted above, Panarin is worth the price and would provide a stellar winger for Mathew Barzal and this offense. Jeff Skinner is another interesting option. A Gustav Nyquist-type player on a good contract could also work. Can they get at least two of Lee, Jordan Eberle and Brock Nelson back under contract? And then there is the goaltending. Should Barry Trotz and the Isles buy in long term on Lehner, or can they swing another short-term deal? There will be a lot in play come July.