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SAN JOSE — Toronto Maple Leafs 2, Sharks 0.

A year after losing Patrick Marleau to the Maple Leafs, the Sharks fell short in their effort to bring the biggest unrestricted free agent to hit the open market in the NHL’s salary cap era to Silicon Valley, coming out on the wrong end of another bidding war with Toronto.

The Maple Leafs won the John Tavares sweepstakes Sunday, signing the 27-year old free agent to a seven-year, $77 million contract. In doing so, Tavares ended his nine-year tenure with the New York Islanders while breaking the hearts of Sharks fans who had envisioned him as a longterm replacement for Joe Thornton, who’s turning 39-years old on Monday.

The Sharks were among the final teams on the list of squads that Tavares was thinking about joining after meeting with six organizations in Los Angeles during the NHL’s “listening period” for pending-free agents last week. Tavares said he eventually whittled his choices down to two teams: the Maple Leafs and the Islanders, choosing the former.

“I actually heard from John himself this morning, tremendously professional,” general manager Doug Wilson said, indicating that the Sharks were in consideration right until the end.

“We let them know that we were committed to whatever it would take to be able to have John come here.”

According to a report out of Canada, the Sharks offered Tavares a contract with an average-annual salary north of $13 million a year, a deal that would have made him among the top-five highest paid players per year.

But the end of the day, the lure of playing for the team that he grew up rooting for as a Toronto-area native helped tip the scale in the Maple Leafs direction. Tavares called playing for his hometown team a “once in a lifetime opportunity.”

The 2009 first-overall pick also expects the Maple Leafs to compete for the Stanley Cup throughout the course of his seven-year contract, another variable that factored heavily into his decision. The Maple Leafs roster is loaded with talented-young players, such as Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander, and their minor-league franchise, the Toronto Marlies, won the AHL’s Calder Cup last month.

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

The Sharks made a full-court press in their attempt to land Tavares. Owner Hasso Plattner personally attended the Sharks meetings with him, Evander Kane wrote a glowing article about the culture of the team’s dressing room in the Players’ Tribune Friday and Logan Couture gave his teammate on Team Canada at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey his two cents via text message.

“I just reached out to him and said, you’ve probably heard, San Jose is a good place to play. We’d love to have you,” Couture said. “Basically that was it. I didn’t want to put any added pressure on him.

“We obviously respect the decision he made.”

With Tavares off the board, the Sharks can turn their attention to re-signing unrestricted free agent Joe Thornton and hashing out new deals for restricted free agents Tomas Hertl and Chris Tierney. The team signed Couture to an eight-year contract extension shortly after the Tavares deal was announced.

The Sharks can also explore plan B options with roughly $19 million in cap space available. Among the players the Sharks could pursue via trade are Buffalo Sabres center Ryan O’Reilly, Columbus Blue Jackets winger Artemi Panarin and Carolina Hurricanes winger Jeff Skinner. Vegas Golden Knights winger James Neal is the most-skilled forward available among unrestricted free agents.

But acquiring a “difference maker” this offseason isn’t a guarantee. If the Sharks are dissatisfied with what’s available this offseason, they could wait and pursue an in-season trade as they did last winter when they acquired Evander Kane from the Sabres on Feb. 26 to replace Marleau.

The Sharks had envisioned Tavares as a longterm replacement for Thornton, who will turn 39-years old on Monday and is coming off major surgeries in both knees within the last 15 months.

 

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