SEVENTY-SIX MINUTES after NHL free agency opened on July 1, the biggest prize on the market tweeted an image from his youth. "Not everyday you can live a childhood dream," read the caption, accompanied by the sight of a sleeping boy, swaddled in bed sheets adorned with logos of his hometown team. Some pictures are worth a thousand words, but fewer than 10 sufficed here: John Tavares (above) had signed with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
While not quite spawning LeBron--to--Los Angeles levels of seismic shock, this (lowercase d) decision nonetheless dramatically altered hockey's power structure entering the 2018--19 season. The Stanley Cup resides with the Capitals for now—assuming Alex Ovechkin hasn't forgotten it in the men's room of a Moscow bar—but inking Tavares for seven years, $77 million brings new hope to a franchise now working on more than six decades without a championship. As one Toronto player wrote in a text to SI, "Juiced as all hell. Awesome time for leaf fans."
Come this fall, on any given night, coach--matchup master Mike Babcock can overwhelm visitors with this three-headed monster up the middle: Tavares, 20-year-old wunderkind Auston Matthews and veteran nuisance Nazem Kadri. Add young wingers Mitch Marner, William Nylander and Connor Brown, and no team can claim a more thrilling core of forwards than the Maple Leafs.
Whether that translates to an extended Eastern Conference run next spring—Toronto last advanced past the second round in 2001--02—is no sure thing. The Lightning remain loaded (whether or not they land Norris Trophy--winning defenseman Erik Karlsson, speculated to be on the move from Ottawa), the Penguins will be rested, and the Capitals return all but two skaters from their title-winning lineup. But the return of an old die-hard fan, living out his dream, will be enough to keep opponents up at night.