Islanders lose Tavares to Toronto as NHL free agency opens

John Tavares had been playing for the New York Islanders since 2009. (AFP pic)

TORONTO: John Tavares will leave the New York Islanders to join the Toronto Maple Leafs on a seven-year National Hockey League contract, saying on Sunday he will realise a childhood dream.

The 27-year-old centre from suburban Toronto will unite with 20-year-old playmaker Auston Matthews to try to bring the Maple Leafs and their hockey-mad city their first Stanley Cup since 1967.

“I’m thrilled to be starting a new chapter of my career and life in Toronto with the @MapleLeafs,” Tavares said in a Twitter posting.

“I feel very fortunate to come join a team with a great young core and play where I grew up learning and loving the game. I can’t wait to get started.”

Tavares scored 37 goals, one off his NHL career season high, and set up 47 others last season for the Islanders, who have won only one playoff series since making Tavares the top pick of the 2009 NHL Draft.

Tavares helped Canada win the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic gold medal and the 2016 World Cup of Hockey crown, as well as two world junior crowns in 2008 and 2009.

The newest Leaf forward tweeted a photo of himself as a boy sleeping in sheets, pillows, and bedding with the Maple Leafs logo and switched his Twitter description from “Hockey Player for the New York Islanders” to one for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

“These past 6 days have been nothing I could have ever expected,” he wrote in a statement posted on Twitter. “Making the toughest decision of my life: to stay where I have been my entire career or make a leap of faith into an opportunity I believe will be special for me and my family.

“The island has been home, it’s what I know, it’s part of me – it always will be. I can’t thank you all enough for the dedication you all have showed. I’m sorry if this decision pains you, as you can tell it wasn’t easy, but have trust in the future because it’s bright. The Islanders are in great hands.

The Islanders missed the playoffs the past two seasons, winning only 35 of 82 games.

The Leafs haven’t won a playoff series since 2004, but excitement has built in Toronto since Matthews was taken with the top pick in the 2016 NHL Draft.