On the eve of free agency, John Tavares is leaving the NHL guessing about his destination.
With less than 12 hours until the market opens, the elite center had not chosen between six suitors, with the San Jose Sharks, hometown Toronto Maple Leafs and incumbent New York Islanders considered the most likely options. Returning to the Islanders looks less likely now after the midnight deadline passed for Tavares to get an eight-year contract from his current team.
The Tavares sweepstakes dragging on into Sunday seems to favor San Jose and Toronto, either of which could sign the 27-year-old to a seven-year deal worth $70 million or more. He met this week with the Sharks, Maple Leafs, Islanders, Boston Bruins, Dallas Stars and Tampa Bay Lightning, and his decision could drastically affect the plans of those teams and others.
”I think other teams have admitted, we would have to make moves (to clear salary-cap space),” Bruins general manager Don Sweeny told reporters in Boston on Friday. ”Pretty confident we’d be able to do that.”
As hockey waited for the Tavares watch to end, several teams made moves Saturday ahead of the frenzy.
The Sharks agreed to a $64 million, eight-year extension with forward Logan Couture, according to a person familiar with the contract who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the deal hasn’t been announced. It can’t become official until after noon Sunday because it doesn’t begin until the 2019-20 season – the same as long-term deals the Los Angeles Kings have with Drew Doughty and Arizona Coyotes have with Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Niklas Hjalmarsson.
Detroit got its own defenseman under contract for the next two seasons by agreeing to deal with Mike Green that pays him $5,375,000 annually. Signing Green could be just the start of the action for the Red Wings, who have been linked to unrestricted free agent goaltender Jonathan Bernier and winger Thomas Vanek.
New Jersey also shored up its goaltending situation by re-signing Eddie Lack to a $650,000, one-year deal. The Devils also have Cory Schneider and Keith Kinkaid, who split time last season and in the playoffs.
A person with direct knowledge of discussions said the Buffalo Sabres are expected to sign goalie Carter Hutton, who had been the St. Louis Blues’ backup to Jake Allen. The person spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because agreements cannot be announced until the signing period begins.
Hutton and others seem to already be ticketed for certain places, but many big-name players are still up for grabs.
Maple Leafs winger James van Riemsdyk, who tied Tavares with 36 goals last season, has been drawing significant interest and, at 29, could easily command a seven-year contract at a substantial raise over his previous $4.25 million salary. The Western Conference champion Vegas Golden Knights have cap space but might lose wingers David Perron and James Neal, who combined for 110 points last season.
The Winnipeg Jets are doing their best to try to bring back center Paul Stastny after he was so instrumental in their playoff run. They cleared about $5.5 million in cap space by trading goaltender Steve Mason and Finnish forward Joel Armia to Montreal on Saturday but may still need more room to bring back the 32-year-old.
The Canadiens are set to buy out Mason, putting him on unconditional waivers as the Minnesota Wild did with forward Tyler Ennis to clear cap space.
Stastny fit in seamlessly after Winnipeg acquired him from St. Louis at the trade deadline but also might be better served waiting to see what Tavares does. Teams looking for a center who don’t land Tavares will look to Stastny and Toronto’s Tyler Bozak and could look into a trade for Buffalo’s Ryan O’Reilly, who is signed for the next five years and owed a $7.5 million bonus Sunday.
AP Sports Writer Josh Dubow in San Jose, California, contributed to this report.