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Insulated until now, Tavares' Long Island return becomes a reality

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Up until a three-and-a-half minute question and answer with the media after the Toronto Maple Leafs robbed the Edmonton Oilers of whatever was left of their soul on Wednesday night in a 6-2 triumph, John Tavares was largely insulated ahead of the one matchup this season that will cast the brightest spotlight on him.

Scheduled optimally on the second half of a back-to-back — with travel included, no less — and at the end of the busiest month of the season with games being played every other night throughout February, the collective focus for Tavares and the Maple Leafs had to be — and for his part, fortunately was — elsewhere until less than 24 hours before his long-awaited return to Long Island, and the franchise with which he starred and left behind after nine seasons.

That doesn’t mean Tavares and his teammates weren’t asked about one of the most significant and weighty and combustable homecoming in recent NHL history before then, but they had every excuse to dodge, downplay and deflect any and all questions pertaining to the subject.

“We’re not looking past this game tonight,” Auston Matthews said Wednesday.

“I’m not thinking about tomorrow,” said Mitch Marner. “I’m sure John is not either.”


For his part versus the Oilers, Tavares didn’t seem too distracted, scoring once and posting a primary assist on Andreas Johnsson’s second goal.

Afterwards though, as the Toronto equipment team rushed to pack up bags in an effort to land in New York at a decent hour, the short scrum involving Tavares did take on a different tone than what we’re accustomed to.

His always-measured and unemotional dialogue morphed into another attempt to rationalize his decision to leave. And while he didn’t deviate far from the script he’s been working off of since the summer, the change in tone seemed to provide a small glimpse into the emotion he’s feeling.

“I don’t try to worry about it,” Tavares said when asked about the vitriol being aimed in his direction by fans that once exalted him. “Like I have said many times, since Day 1 when I was drafted there I fully embraced being an Islander. I loved it and I gave everything that I had.

“Whatever it is now, it’s not up to me to convince anyone of that. I have enough to worry about.”

He continued when asked if he understood why he’s been subjected to resentment among Islanders fans:

“I think I had every right to go through the process that I went through. I tried to be open and honest when I made my decision. I had no idea what I was going to do until I made my decision. People can take it any way they want, but I’m just going to go out there and play, do what I have to do to be at my best.

“All I can do is control what I can control.”

Visibly uneasy speaking too far in depth about his return, the most difficult part is still to come with Tavares. With a session with the New York media scheduled just a few hours before puck drop and a request surely to be granted for after the game, questions won’t be floated so softly in his direction in New York.

Thanks to an in-season decision to switch the location from mild Brooklyn to madhouse Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Uniondale, the tough questions, however, should pale in comparison to the hostilities shown from jilted fans. Despite being able to cheer on the first-place Islanders this season, they are still feeling some type of way.

Whether or not the question was inflated with hyperbole, Mike Babcock did have to answer to whether or not he’s worried about Tavares’ safety in Long Island after Wednesday’s win.

“Lou (Lamoriello) is in charge of that organization,” the Leafs coach said. “He’ll have it buttoned down, and there will be none of that. I’m not concerned about that one bit.”

Nasty, but likely not dangerous. Either way, Tavares’ Long Island return might be everything but comfortable.

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