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Photo Credit: Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports

TLN Top 20 Leafs: #4 John Tavares

To say last year didn’t end how John Tavares wanted it to is probably the biggest understatement I could make. After captaining the Leafs to a division title, there was a lot of hope heading into the post season, and while the Leafs didn’t make it out of the first round, a freak accident meant Tavares didn’t make it out of the first period of Game One, and while disappointing, the only thought that comes to mind about Tavares is that it could have been so much worse and the fact that he’s back at 100% to start the 2021-22 season is one of the reasons for hope this year.

Like the next three Leafs on our list, Tavares was exclusively ranked at the top of the Leafs list. Some three rankings, some four rankings, a couple of fives from our contributors that value defense and goaltender, but for me Tavares is the 2nd best Leaf (I’ll leave you to guess who’s #1.) My ranking, like I’d hope most of our contributors rankings was based in person preference, and for me I’ll take a center over a winger any day, and I think round one last year proved that the 2C position is one you can’t afford to rely on your understudy in when it’s important. While Tavares’ best production years might be behind him, he’s still packing a second to none hockey sense that will serve him well throughout his career and is why he’s ranked as TLN’s 4th best Leaf.

5 Stats

Playoff TOI P/60 xGA/60 82 Game Seasons with fewer than 24 goals Money owed after July 1, 2022
2:53 2.22 2.04 0 $16.81M

So John Tavares has been a pretty darn consistent player, and arguably there isn’t a whole lot of worry about whether or not he’ll continue to live up to his contract. If last season was an 82 game season, Tavares would have been on pace for 27 or 28 goals, still surpassing his bottom rung total of 24, which he has done twice, once in his rookie year and once in a season where he played 59 games. While last season was technically a down year for his goal production, his 5v5 scoring was at 2.22, and near the best results of his career. If you acknowledge the absolutely disastrous Leafs powerplay of the second half of the season, there’s no reason to believe his goal total wouldn’t have been better, but his 5v5 numbers speak to him still being the most capable version of himself.

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In fact, he seems to be getting more capable as he had career low numbers when it comes to his xGA/60 and CA/60, and somehow turning a line with William Nylander into one that was defensively responsible. North Division opposition aside, the numbers for Tavares were strong, and despite being on the wrong side of 30, I don’t think we need to worry about his decline just yet.

In the event the Leafs do see a decline from Tavares, the actual money owed to Tavares for his last three seasons if dealt after July 1st could potentially create a market for him and while I’m aware of his full no movement clause, his captaincy in his hometown, and my general appreciation for him as one of my favourite players to watch, I do think it’s still worth considering what the dollars and cents reality is for every Leaf as the cap crunch continues, and Tavares could be very marketable to frugal teams.

The biggest number that has been sticking in our head about Tavares since last May is his 2:53 minutes of playoff icetime last year. The Matthews, Tavares one two punch is what perennially puts the Leafs in the Stanley Cup contender conversation, even if the results haven’t backed it up. And while it’s reasonable to think that Leafs should have beaten the 4th seed Habs without Tavares, there is plenty of reason to believe he could have put the Leafs over the top in the first round at minimum.

When it comes to the expanded look at Tavares last season, and not just his final minutes in the playoffs, it was a mixed bag. While there wasn’t any reason to be up in arms about how Tavares has been performing, and saying that he’s failing to live up to his contract, that was a narrative at times last year, If we’re going to attempt to make anything out of that it would come from February when Tavares had 5.9% shooting percentage, or in March when he managed only 9 points in 14 games. Even over that February, March 26 game stretch, Tavares had 18 points, but I guess that’s enough to constitute a slump for him.

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Tavares’ lack of footspeed again became part of the narrative around him, but that ignores that speed has never been part of Tavares’ game, and he’s always been able to get by on smarts, and positioning, something that will serve him even more as age catches up to him, and he possibly loses another step. I can certainly attest to having moments where I thought that it might be best to transition JT to the wing in the near future, and possibly test the idea in camp this year, but I can now acknowledge how foolish that idea is. Not only do the Leafs lack another option to put in the middle if they shuffled Tavares to the side, but his consistent offense and improving line defensive numbers slap reactionary takes like that in the face.

As for 2021-22, well, we’ve got a healthy John Tavares, thankfully. We’ve still got William Nylander on his right side, so that’s 2/3rds of something to be excited about, and Tavares has been spending a lot of time working with Michael Bunting and Josh Ho-Sang in training camp, either one of which could provide very interesting options for the Leafs.

We could also see Alexander Kerfoot reprise his role on the left wing, as he was successful with Tavares and Nylander last year as well. What doesn’t look promising is the idea of Ilya Mikheyev spending time on that line, and although he adds some speed to make up for the lack of it from Tavares, and he provides defensive zone coverage that makes up for Nylander’s lack of defensive awareness, committing a top six forward position to someone who struggles offensively doesn’t seem ideal and could impact Tavares and Nylander.

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As for encouraging signs of things to come, Tavares has been a part of the top powerplay unit with the other members of the core four, and Morgan Rielly. With Tavares being the net presence on one of the most loaded powerplay lines in the league, we can probably expect good things.

Beyond that, health is going to be critical for Tavares. The Leafs need a healthy Tavares and healthy Matthews to be successful in the playoffs, and if that comes at the price of sitting them longer in the regular season when they are banged up, that’s probably the correct course of action.

It’s also possible that John Tavares could be tapped on the shoulder to play for Canada at the Olympics. While he might not be one of the top 14 forwards, and the first choice to go and represent Canada, history shows Hockey Canada’s preference for veteran players, and there is a whole lot of season and there will be no shortage of injuries leading up to next February that could put him in the conversation.

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I love John Tavares, but he’s Sidney Crosby levels of bland in what he puts out to the world, no doubt a product of being on the path to NHL stardom from his early teens. When it came to selecting a goal song for Tavares my initial thought was the monotone sax solo from The Jones Girl (often considered the worst sax solo), but I have to yield to the expertise of Nick Richard who put me on the correct path to what the obvious correct choice is for John Tavares and that’s…

We’ll throw in an additional honourable mention to Pajama Pants, that might be a worthwhile option for Islanders games.