The annual “Maple Leafs should move John Tavares to the wing” conversation

Photo credit:James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports
Jon Steitzer
8 months ago
What I love (hate) about August is that we have become so far removed from hockey that anything is possible. The Leafs will invite half the league to pro tryouts and they’ll all spontaneously jumpstart their careers. Morgan Rielly should be a forward. William Nylander should be traded. And the drum I beat far too often, should John Tavares be moved to the wing?
The John Tavares to the wing thing is much more of a settled debate this summer because we’ve now seen it and realized it’s not a bad thing when it happens, but we are see that there is no replacement option readily available for him and makes the argument null and void. John Tavares will be a centre for the Leafs in their current state and it’s hard to imagine that there will be anything changing that.
So it’s time to shift the conversation a little and that is going to be looking at whether or not John Tavares is a winger in an ideal lineup and if so, what is the best path to achieving that.
Last year Tavares spent  96 minutes on the ice 5v5 with Ryan O’Reilly, and 71 minutes on the ice with Auston Matthews. With Matthews this would often be late in the game chasing a tying goal scenarios where the time with O’Reilly was less situational. The time spent with O’Reilly and Matthews represents about 15% of Tavares total ice time last season.
Tavares also spent a lot of time with pseudo-centres Calle Jarnkrok and Alex Kerfoot.
Looking at the numbers things are inclusive and when carving things into smaller samples there are situational elements related to a lot of these cases, particularly the Auston Matthews late in the game pushing for offence situations, as well as with Ryan O’Reilly the line would have been taking on a lot tougher assignments. Still what is interesting here is that Calle Jarnkrok certainly had a positive impact on John Tavares’ defensive game even if it came at the cost of some offence. The overall success story of fewer goals being scored with Tavares on the ice when he was on with Ryan O’Reilly is another thing that can’t be ignored especially when chances went up. Both of these still feel more like its making a case for some defensive anchors on Tavares’ line rather than moving him to the wing though.
While no one should be making the case for John Tavares as a defensive centre (although I believe that bill of goods was initially sold upon his arrival in Toronto) it seems as if Sheldon Keefe and company has consistently recognized that over his time in Toronto. The Leafs have put Tavares in fewer tougher matchup situations and his numbers have improved. That being said, there is something about not being able to use a top six centre in all situations that might be an argument for someone else being a better option at that position, but it is also safe to say that player is not presently on the Leafs roster nor is their cap space to bring them in.
When looking at Tavares vs Tavares previously he might come out favourably, but with the addition of Ryan O’Reilly last year, the Leafs had a potential 2C that had reduced shot attempts against and goals against in that role, and that could be their desire once again either in the 2C or 3C role.
There is also a lot to be said for having speed up the middle and that isn’t nor has it ever been what John Tavares is known for. It’s not something coming on with age, it’s something that has been a staple of Tavares’ career and if anything shows that there isn’t a lack of urgency in addressing it.
So all of this leaves John Tavares in a place where starting the season with him at centre makes the most sense. We already knew that. The bigger questions stem from what is best for John Tavares in the future and as I see there are three key intervals for that.
  • The trade deadline is the first instance where winger vs. centre John Tavares needs to be revisited. All of the same salary cap concerns will still be valid at the deadline as they are today save for some potential long term injury influence. The other piece that will need to be considered is the contract status of William Nylander and Auston Matthews at that point. If William Nylander is still without a contract is it in the Leafs best interest to move Nylander at the deadline for whatever they can get and then flip that asset for a centre rather than a winger replacement? This is a bit of a shuffling deckchairs scenario and far from ideal but realistically could be something the Leafs have to consider. If the Leafs somehow do find themselves in a situation where they can make a straight up addition to their lineup the positive impact of Ryan O’Reilly should show the benefit of centre depth flexibility that includes either moving Tavares to the wing or pushing someone like David Kampf down the depth chart.
  • The offseason poses another opportunity for debate on the positional future of John Tavares. In the highly unlikely event of Auston Matthews departing from the Leafs that certainly puts emphasis on Tavares continuing at the centre position going forward. In the seemingly more likely situation where William Nylander moves on from the Leafs, it might be in the Maple Leafs best interest to move Tavares over to the wing and allocate the cap space towards an overpayment on Elias Lindholm, Mark Schiefele, or Steven Stamkos.
  • Finally there is what happens beyond John Tavares’ current contract. Thankfully he won’t be an $11M forward at that point or at least in a couple of years the bar for what an $11M will have shifted enough that he makes sense at that price (he won’t be an $11M player or at least not on the Leafs). John Tavares will be approaching 35 years of age as the season starts and while there hasn’t been a steep drop off of production (save for 5v5) Tavares will still have something to offer, it’s just less likely to be at centre position. There is the complicating factor of Marner’s next contract at the same time and whether he’ll be priced out of Toronto. Again this affords the Leafs the opportunity to consider Tavares a wing replacement and pursue a centre with the cap space from Marner’s departure.
While finding ways to add to the Leafs centre depth has a lot more appeal and potentially expediting Tavares on the wing sooner rather than later because of that, it doesn’t seem like an option for the Leafs. While Kyle Dubas managed to maintain a decent enough pool of prospects while frequently trading draft picks, the centre position is one that was never prioritized and has eliminated the possibility for affordable help being on the way. (To be fair finding a centre who can swiftly benefit a team via the draft is nearly impossible when picking outside the top 15.) The point remains that John Tavares will most likely be a centre for the foreseeable future not necessarily out of it being the position he is best suited for at this point in his career, but out of necessity.
(Data from Natural Stat Trick)

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