How the Leafs get the most of John Tavares in the short and long term

Photo credit:Thomas Salus-USA TODAY Sports
Jon Steitzer
1 month ago
Through the first 25 games of the season John Tavares had 25 points. By my math that made him a point per game player. Since that time John Tavares 9 points in 20 games, and most notably an eight game pointless streak. Some quick analysis points to that being worse although the 9 points in 12 games thing wouldn’t be setting off any alarms on its own and now it seems that a season that started off with touting Tavares as a player that might never drop off is being treated like he’s completely washed and will never score again. Recency bias is a mother.
I’m going to step back for a minute and appreciate that recency bias aside, there is some merit to having a discussion about John Tavares.
When it comes to point production, this season John Tavares is now on pace for his lowest points per game as a Leaf. It will also likely be his lowest goals per game as a Leaf too. This comes with the always looming reminder that John Tavares’ has an $11M cap hit and while having a 62 point second line centre is something that most teams would quite happily take on their team and it is likely that the overall point production for Tavares will improve once his pointless streak is snapped, the $11M thing carries a lot of weight even if 60+ points in year six of the Tavares deal seemed like something acceptable at the time.
What might also add to some of the production concern is that 12 of Tavares’ 22 assists this season are secondary assists. and his 10:12 first to secondary assist ratio is a far cry from last seasons’ 27:17 and Tavares only has one other season in his career where secondary assists were more prevalent, the 2021-22 season when he had 21:28. (If you are looking to not panic, he certainly came back from that season just fine and still had 27 goals and 76 points.)
That’s the stuff in the panic column, the stuff that points to not panicking about John Tavares is simple. For one his 5v5 production isn’t suffering the same way his powerplay numbers are. Tavares over the course of his career has picked up 33.7% of his points on the powerplay, a number that last season spiked to 48.4%. This season John Tavares has only 29.4% of his points on the powerplay. He finished last season with 39 points on the powerplay, so far this season he has 10 powerplay points. Given that last year was a career high for Tavares, some drop off is certainly expected, especially with Guy Boucher taking over the PP from the departed Spencer Carbery.
There is also the fact that John Tavares’ on ice numbers remain stable to last season. There has been an upswing in corsi against, but there has been an even greater spike in corsi for. The same holds true for expected goals, and only when it comes to actual goals to do we see the Goals For % suffer, but with both goals for and goals against declining. With a lower on-ice shooting percentage and higher numbers of attempts, the numbers suggest that the goals could come for the Tavares line and again this is a panic based in eight crappy games.
Tavares is also taking fewer penalties; his shot blocks are up as is his faceoff winning percentage. His giveaways are down, but I guess so are his takeaways. All and all, there isn’t anything pointing to concerns about John Tavares that the All-Star break won’t potentially fix.

That said…

When was the last time there was something concerning on the Leafs that when you ignored it the problem just went away? And while John Tavares’ body probably didn’t realize that he’s 33 somewhere in the middle of the home and home series with San Jose, the need for a Plan B while Tavares is struggling isn’t the worst thing to come up with as it is a solution that might need to be revisited deeper into the season as the games pile up, next year, and if John Tavares will be returning to play out his career as a Maple Leaf, a redefined role during the next contract also makes a ton of sense.
Last season the Leafs test drove the idea of winger John Tavares with Ryan O’Reilly. It definitely made sense in some situations but given that it wasn’t fully warranted yet, using them both at centre and going three lines deep generally served the Leafs better. Still, adding a player who excels at both ends of the ice seemed beneficial and required less management of the situations in which Tavares was on the ice. Most contingencies around Tavares are going to be based in this keep him in the top six but on the wing approach.
The question becomes who plays centre? There doesn’t seem like any benefit in having William Nylander take on centre responsibilities at the same time as Tavares figures himself out on the wing. And the options of Max Domi mean too much sheltering required for the line or Kampf meaning not generating enough offence probably means that Tavares is best kept in the middle, unless Pontus Holmberg as a second line centre is something the Leafs want to explore. I’m guessing they don’t.
The alternative is switching around some of the lines to give Tavares a chance to figure things out while not stalling the Leafs offence. Putting Nylander back with Matthews and giving Marner with Domi another look creates two solid pairings that can then have any of Holmberg, Robertson, Knies, and Bertuzzi attached to them. I’d keep Jarnkrok for Tavares to help find a balance that lets all three lines take regular shifts.
In a season where the Leafs aren’t likely to bring in another centre, this seems like the best option for giving Tavares time and space to figure out his game. Beyond this season a middle six centre starts looking like a critical area to address even if the Leafs are planning on Fraser Minten being part of the roster next season. Holmberg and Minten offer some promising centre depth for the Maple Leafs but the immediate need is for the Leafs to have someone who can challenge Tavares for the 2C spot.
If Tavares is returning the Leafs on a new contract, it is likely Toronto is signing John Tavares, winger. And while a rising salary cap makes it difficult to guess what a reasonable contract would look like, Steven Stamkos’ deal in Tampa will certainly be a benchmark and he’s a great example of someone who is already being successfully transitioned over a wing role.
While it seems that this is just a player going through an unprecedent rough patch and not the beginning of the end of John Tavares, the Leafs need to figure out how to get the best hockey out of their captain.
Data from Capfriendly, NHL Edge, and Natural Stat Trick

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