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How John Tavares can break out of his career-worst slump

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Photo credit:Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports
Arun Srinivasan
1 month ago
John Tavares has been a prolific scorer at every level, which is why his nine-game scoring drought feels so pronounced. Tavares emerged onto the national scene as an offensive prodigy for the Toronto Marlboros of the Greater Toronto Hockey League and has never looked back, rounding into one of the greatest scorers of his generation. Tavares reached the 1,000-point milestone earlier this season and in the midst of the greatest slump of his professional career, many believe that the Maple Leafs captain is amid the early stages of a sharp, precipitous decline.
“A lot of its BS,” Maple Leafs defenseman Mark Giordano said of Tavares via Sportsnet’s Luke Fox, prior to Wednesday’s game against the Winnipeg Jets. “He hasn’t slowed down one bit. We all know that in here. I’ve gone through that, too. A lot of people try to convince you of that. But just stick to your guns and stick to what’s gotten you in the league and kept you in the league this long.”
Giordano is correct in that Tavares’ skating hasn’t taken a noticeable dip — at the start of the season, Tavares was lauded by many for gaining a half-step over the offseason while thriving early on, primarily paired with William Nylander. NHL Edge data isn’t perfect but it’s another step towards quantifying the previously unknowable and Tavares currently ranks in the 65th percentile among forwards when it comes to his top speed. And perhaps more to the point, Tavares isn’t losing the race against Father Time just yet. In fact, there’s plenty of reason to be optimistic about Tavares’ offensive profile and how he can break out of this slump.
Tavares has always done the simple things well and it’s encouraging that he’s tied for second league-wide in rebounds created at 5-on-5, trailing only Brent Burns, whose shot profile is a true anomaly. It’s a simple axiom but if you throw pucks at the net, good things will happen and Tavares is trying to generate easy offense for his linemates, whether it’s William Nylander, Tyler Bertuzzi, or more recently, Pontus Holmberg. It’s a matter of time before Nylander, Bertuzzi, Holmberg or Nick Robertson convert off the chances he’s creating. If this is a down year for Tavares — it very well may be — he’s still in good company, tied for 16th league-wide on goals scored off tips. Tavares is always hunting for efficient looks and though he may not be creating as dynamically as we’ve come to expect, he’s still going to be a nuisance posting up in front of the net.
Toronto is also looking to get Tavares involved on the power play — the man advantage effectively runs through the threat of Matthews’ scorching shot, while Nylander has become a more willing shooter but Tavares is posted up net-front, looking for deflections, to operate as a back-to-the-net forward and at the very least, occupy the attention of a defenseman while Toronto hunts for its best looks.
If you want to subscribe to the idea that Tavares is declining, there’s not much standing in your way but he’s only converting on 7.1 percent of shooting attempts, a far cry from his career-average of 12.8 percent. Regression to the mean only works if you apply the good faith idea that Tavares is still capable of producing the same results as yesteryear but even if you believe Tavares is washed, his career-low is 10.8 percent and he’s shown prior to the 2024 calendar year that he can facilitate top-line results, especially when paired with Nylander. Tavares ranks 30th in 5-on-5 shots and with the expectation that he will regress to the mean, expect the drought to end soon, even if he doesn’t necessarily start scoring in droves. It’s not like Tavares strode onto the ice aimlessly either, he’s generated 24 shots in his past five games, including a team-best seven shots in all situations during a 1-o win against the defensively sound Jets.
“In John’s case, he has been through enough ups and downs that you recognize (the drought), but most importantly at this time in his career, he has far greater perspective of what’s really important,” Keefe said Tuesday to the Toronto Sun’s Terry Koshan. “He needs to help this team win and producing on offence is part of that, but there’s way more to it for me.”
Tavares isn’t showing up on the scoresheet but he’s still providing value for the Maple Leafs. Edmonton Oilers defenseman Darnell Nurse was livid after Tavares goaded him into a cross-checking penalty during a Jan. 16 contest. Tavares used his massive frame to draw a holding penalty against Jets forward Dominic Toninato during Wednesday’s win, writhing to the ground when Toninato tried to wedge the puck away. And to be clear, there’s an expectation that Tavares needs to provide top-six offense, he’s far too valuable to this team to be mired in a drought this long but we’re not going to prescribe that the sky is falling when he’s doing a lot of things well.
Since he emerged as a teenage prodigy that forced the Canadian Hockey League to revamp its exceptional status designation, Tavares’ signature has always been his scoring ability and more pointedly, his ability to dominate in the slot with an innate sense of where the puck will be. He’s not scoring like he’s expected to but he’s keeping the game simple and while he eventually has to put up points, there’s a pathway back to star-level production.

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