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Maple Leafs need John Tavares to get back on track before the playoffs

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Photo credit:Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Shane Seney
16 days ago
For the ninth time in John Tavares’ 15-year NHL career, he’ll be playing in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Maple Leafs captain hasn’t necessarily been at his best of late and he’ll need to be if there’s going to be a parade planned this summer in Toronto.
Tavares has had an interesting season, being moved throughout the top three lines, and even seeing time on the second power-play unit. It seems like his role is going to change slightly heading into the postseason as Sheldon Keefe is going to lean on the veteran centre and wingman Mitch Marner to handle some major defensive assignments.
Against the Florida Panthers, the Leafs captain and his linemates will likely receive the Sam Reinhart matchup, where if things change drastically these last few games atop the Eastern Conference if the Boston Bruins are the first-round opponent, Tavares, Marner and likely Bobby McMann will be asked to shadow the Brad Marchand/David Pastrnak line. A role that the Maple Leafs captain can handle, he just hasn’t been asked to be a ‘shut-down’ guy most of his career. At 33 years old and with the Leafs very balanced, especially offensively across their top three lines, it makes sense for Keefe to lean his second line for the big assignment.
Tavares has just one goal in his last 10 games. There are four games left in the regular season and while Auston Matthews will likely sit the last game of the season, the second end of a back-to-back, perhaps Keefe should keep Tavares in the lineup to try and get him going before the games matter most. The Leafs captain has been streaky this season and can put up points in a hurry, however, this going to be his worst offensive season since his rookie year back in 2009-2010. This has impacted Keefe’s outlook on where Tavares can impact the game the most.
The Maple Leafs are as deep as they’ve ever been up front and there’s lots of offence to go around, so hopefully this will continue into the playoffs. Tavares has shown as a Maple Leaf, he can be relied on in the postseason, with 22 points in 31 games. It seems like for this Cup run, Keefe won’t care as much about the points he’s putting up and more so about the points he’s keeping off the board. This newfound defensive role will be interesting to watch unfold just based on the fact Tavares has limited foot speed and isn’t necessarily the type of guy that loves to be a pest shadowing superstars around the ice. His smarts are where he’ll lean on the most as the Leafs captain has an extremely high hockey IQ and he should be more than capable of being on the right side of the puck, especially if he’s laser-focused on the assignment. The physicality of Bobby McMann will help the line as well and I could very well see Keefe moving Nylander up to play with Marner and Tavares if the Leafs get behind a goal or two, or their offence needs a spark at certain parts of the game. Keefe loves to tinker and did so recently in New Jersey and I’d expect to see more of this heading into the playoffs.

Tavares New Role is Foreshadowing to Future in Toronto

This summer, Maple Leafs GM Brad Treliving will have conversations with Tavares and his agent regarding his role on the team moving forward. The Leafs captain has just one season left on his mega-contract and while the likes of Nylander and Matthews have their huge extensions kicking in, look for Tavares’ next contract to head in the other direction.
Treliving likely asks the veteran centre to take a ‘hometown’ discount and I could see his next deal being nowhere close to the $11 million AAV and more in the ballpark of an extension like Evgeni Malkin’s in Pittsburgh where he came in at $6.1 million AAV. Perhaps, even less.
With the dip in production and his footspeed decreasing with each season, Tavares can become a shut-down third-line centre these next few years in Toronto and his ability to win puck battles along the boards and use his hockey IQ to put himself into positions to be successful. It’s certainly a storyline to follow looking ahead into the next few seasons in Toronto, but it’s also on the front-burner for the upcoming first-round series.
Nevertheless, if Keefe identifies early on that Tavares can’t handle being the defensive specialist he’s looking for, the Maple Leafs coach has lots of options. Matthews is a Selke front-runner, Pontus Holmberg and David Kampf also have a history handling assignments, so it’s all going to depend on what Keefe is seeing and more importantly what he believes sets up the Maple Leafs for success.

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