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John Tavares’ 2023-24 season points toward a third-line centre role next season

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Photo credit:© Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports
Shane Seney
28 days ago
Toronto Maple Leafs captain John Tavares continues to be one of the team’s core players and someone they lean on for consistent production. Throughout the 2023-24 season, Tavares, at 33 years old, continues to find ways to round out his game and evolve. Heading into next season, the perfect spot for the veteran centre could be as the team’s third-line centre.
Looking back at last season, for starters, the surface-level numbers were basically as expected. The Oakville, ON native finished the season appearing in 80 games, recording 29 goals and ending the season with 65 points. He played an average of 17:51 of ice time a night, which is up 12 seconds from the previous season. It will be interesting to see how Craig Berube handles Tavares’ minutes moving forward.
The Leafs captain played over three minutes a night on the power play and throughout the season there were some struggles, as a collective group, so Tavares was even moved to the second unit for limited stretches throughout the season. Depending on who is added this upcoming offseason, Berube may also do the same and keep Tavares on PP2. His 20 power-play points were a significant drop off from the year before when he collected 39 points with the man advantage.

Tavares is Silencing the Doubters

Ever since Tavares signed his mega-deal to join the Maple Leafs, he’s produced. Year after year he’s hovered around a point-a-game during the regular season. One of the big knocks on his game was the fact he looks slower on the ice and his foot speed continues to be questioned. The funny part, he improved his skating the previous offseason and the numbers don’t lie. Let’s dive into some figures from NHL Edge:
Top Skating SpeedSpeed Bursts Over 20mphSkating Distance (miles)Top Shot Speed (mph)Off.Zone Time
2022-2321.9984211.8086.7341.4%
2023-2422.39105213.3988.1141.5%
Tavares’ Edge numbers went on to include he finished the 2023-24 season with 103 skating bursts between 20-22mph, which was up from 84 the previous season. To quickly summarize the findings, which may shock some Leafs fans, Tavares is skating more distance, he’s faster than he’s ever been and is reaching higher top speeds on a more consistent basis. Did you see that one coming?

Tavares Becoming Suitable Third-Line Centre

Another interesting stat from Tavares’ 2023-24 season was the fact he finished the year with a career-high 134 hits, good for sixth on the Maple Leafs. It was by far his most hits landed of any season throughout his career, and it’s almost more hits in one season than he had in his first three years in Toronto combined. So what’s changed? Tavares is smart, he understands his role on the team and he knows what he needs to do best in order to stay in the league. While he’s still an offensive threat, he’s no longer capable of carrying the offence and being ‘the guy’. That’s ok. In Toronto, he doesn’t have to be.
Tavares’s game is evolving and becoming more suitable for a third-line role. He’s more well-rounded and yes, more physical. He knows what it takes to win and he’s willing to sacrifice his individual accolades to make it happen. He’s the ultimate team guy. He continues to be a faceoff specialist. He won 59.2% of his faceoffs, which was by far the best of the Maple Leafs’ centres. With his ability to win draws, be physical on the forecheck and be more defensively sound, Tavares is aligning himself for the back nine of his career. He’ll turn 34 before the start of next season and with just one season left on his contract, he wants to stay in the league as long as possible and by the sounds of it stay with the Maple Leafs. He knows it won’t be as a first-line centre so he’s making tweaks to his strengths and setting himself up to be effective in a third-line role.
With Auston Matthews now handling penalty kill duties, to this point, Tavares hasn’t been asked to be on that side of special teams. It’s not something he’s done much of throughout his career, and with Berube now the bench boss, it will be interesting to see how exactly he plans to use the Leafs captain in 2024-25, and potentially beyond.

Maple Leafs Future Still Uncertain

It would be shocking to see general manager Brad Treliving give Tavares a contract extension before next season. It appears, even though management wants to make drastic changes that Tavares is safe and the team won’t ask him to waive his no-movement clause.
I think what’s more likely is Tavares ends up re-signing at the end of next season, on a two-year deal for a hometown discount somewhere in the $4-5 millions. I also think Treliving and Berube may consider changing the leadership structure of the team and perhaps give Matthews the ‘C’.
With the 2024 offseason yet to shake out, look for Tavares to likely start the season in the #2 or #3 hole down the middle for the Maple Leafs. If Max Domi and Mitch Marner both return next season, perhaps Berube starts Domi in the two hole and Tavares gets used to the new normal, being lower on the depth chart.

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