TORONTO, ONTARIO - AUGUST 09: Zach Werenski #8 of the Columbus Blue Jackets checks John Tavares #91 of the Toronto Maple Leafs into the b in Game Five of the Eastern Conference Qualification Round prior to the 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Scotiabank Arena on August 09, 2020 in Toronto, Ontario.
(Photo by Andre Ringuette/Freestyle Photo/Getty Images)

Although John Tavares tucked tail and left town for Toronto, the New York Islanders are having the last laugh once again.

For the second year in a row, the Toronto Maple Leafs are heading home early while the New York Islanders are preparing for another playoff series. Technically, John Tavares and the Leafs didn’t even make the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs. They were bounced in the Qualifying Round by the upstart Columbus Blue Jackets.

The Islanders, on the other hand, are moving onto a seven-game series with the Washington Capitals after easily dispatching the Florida Panthers in four games.

When Tavares spurned the Isles for his hometown Maple Leafs, things looked bleak for the team on Long Island. Who could replace the production that Tavares gave the Isles for so many years?

As it turns out, many hands make light work. Mathew Barzal isn’t John Tavares, but he’s developing into one of the more exciting players in the NHL. Anthony Beauvillier is starting to come out of his shell and show much more consistency. The defense is a stout group under head coach Barry Trotz as well. No one could singlehandedly fill Tavares’ skates, but the Isles, as a group, are just better all the way around.

Make no mistake about it, Tavares is one of the best players in the NHL, but the Isles are improving without him. In the last two seasons, the Isles have two playoff series wins. That’s as many as the Islanders had in nine seasons with Tavares.

If the Isles can win four out of seven against the Capitals, they’d accomplish something that Tavares could never do on Long Island—win two playoff series in a single year. Of course, this year is a bit different with the Qualifying Round, but the point remains—the Isles are a more successful team without Tavares.

John Tavares’ Mega-Contract

Obviously, the Isles made a major push to try and re-sign Tavares. He was the franchise for a long time and his departure crushed the fans. Although the Isles are clearly a better team over the last two years than they were with Tavares, they probably would be a better squad with him.

But we still have to acknowledge the massive contract that Tavares signed. Seven years at $11 million per year is the kind of deal that can hamstring a team. If the Isles were never able to make it over the hump with Tavares, they might be better off without that contract on the books. Now team president Lou Lamoriello can get creative in how he pieces together his roster.

In a league with a “hard cap,” a deal like Tavares’ can leave a team in bad shape for a long time. Look at the Florida Panthers who just signed Sergei Bobrovsky to a seven-year, $70 million deal. He fell off a cliff and now Florida’s books are a disaster. With that said, Tavares is still putting up superstar numbers, but if he ever regresses, the Maple Leafs are cooked.

Maybe the Leafs finally exorcise their playoff demons and win a Stanley Cup with Tavares leading the team in the next few years. But until they outperform the Isles, the plucky squad from Long Island is having the last laugh.

NY/NJ hoops reporter (NBA/NCAA) & sports betting writer for XL Media. Never had the makings of a varsity athlete.