John Tavares scored 26 goals in 63 games in what is largely being treated as a down year for him. Somehow 60 points in 63 games is a cause for concern, and we are now questioning whether he is the right player to captain the Leafs, and if this is part of a steeper decline in his game now that Tavares has hit the magic 3-0 age milestone, and with an $11M annual cap hit the panic seems to be starting early on JT.
Given the panic, Tavares’ number is 5. There are five years remaining on John’s contract with the Leafs, and it’s entirely possible we’re going to hear about more and more about Tavares for the next five years with an increasing number of people painting this as a bad contract, or bad signing.
So let’s start off with one universal truth, Tavares isn’t a bargain, and as an unrestricted free agent he certainly cashed in at his maximum value. Tavares is going to be a great player for the Leafs, but expectations about living up to $11M contracts are better focused on players like Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner who received those deals as restricted free agents entering their prime, not the mercenary market of unrestricted free agency.
The next universal truth is that athletes do not age like fine wine. The likelihood that Tavares magically puts up 50 goals and 100 points at this point in his career is a pipe dream, expecting that he can maintain a near point per game pace isn’t. The near point per game player is what Tavares has been, and some years that has taken the former of a 40 goal scorer, a 30 goal scorer, or a little less, but he’s consistently been around a point per game, and he’s a consistent threat to score when he’s on the ice. As he transitions from the 1A/1B center when he first came to Toronto to much more of a clear 2nd line center, the Leafs aren’t being ripped off and in fact Tavares become that more through the improvement in Auston Matthews than his own decline.
A lot of the benefit to having Tavares signed and in his role well into his 30s is the fact that Tavares has never been a player that has relied on speed or physicality to get things done. He’s a smart player who reads the game well, is positionally sound, and has enough in his arsenal to capitalize on his opportunities.
It will be interesting to see how Tavares responds to the criticism that he received last season, both by those who don’t feel he has lived up to his contract, and those who feel the captaincy would be better off with one of the other Leafs players. As a soft spoken, non-controversial player, Tavares isn’t the sound bite driven captain the Toronto media desires, but with his strong work ethic, commitment to hockey, and his history of making players around him better, Tavares seems like he’ll continue to thrive in that role and I doubt he’s feeling the pressure, considering he’s been under the microscope of the hockey media most of his life.
And as for living up to his contract, well, as long as Tavares isn’t the third line center in the next couple of years, the Leafs are probably getting exactly what they want out of him. Generally speaking, players of Tavares pedigree and resume have been able to hold their near point per game pace into their mid-30s, the Leafs should feel comfortable with what they have in Tavares for the next five years. It might seem increasingly like an overpayment, but that is also decidedly the nature of NHL free agency, and with a buyout proof contract and a full no movement clause, it’s probably best to embrace what Toronto will get from JT. He’s here until he doesn’t want to be, and a lot more people need to remember that’s a good thing.