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The best thing for John Tavares might be to play wing, but that opens up a big hole at center

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Photo credit:Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Jon Steitzer
6 months ago
Last fall I might have been a bit premature in beating the “move John Tavares to wing” drum, and to some extent, a 76 point in 79 game season points to JT doing just fine at center this year so I’ll accept that we weren’t quite there yet. Now things have changed a little. Most significantly there was a spike in GA/60 against the Tavares line this season. There was a notable trend upwards on xGA/60, and a modest increase in CA/60 as well. Defensively a step backward was taken. Tavares’ line was also more offensive, but not enough that it balanced out to a favourable goal differential. While high event hockey is by definition fun, and the Tavares line was getting its chances, the outcomes raise some concerns.
There’s also something to be said for the way Tavares plays the center role. He’s never had much in the way of speed or physicality, two hallmarks of what you’d hope to put in the center of the ice, but his smarts and positioning make up for those shortcomings. As speed potentially becomes more of an issue moving into the latter part of Tavares’ contract, there is the need to consider whether a center is the best place for him to be, and given the frequent pairing with William Nylander, the lack of physical play seems to be a more prevalent issue of late as well.
Now, the question is, how much gets fixed by moving Tavares to wing? Does it only create a bigger problem?
From a Tavares standpoint, it probably puts him in the most optimal place for him to be in his career today. He’s likely to be very capable in all of his 200-foot duties with the reduced responsibility that comes with moving away from the middle. It enforces him going to places in the offensive zone where he thrives as a goal scorer rather than attaching greater play-driving responsibilities to him. From a John Tavares standpoint, this move makes sense.
From a Leafs standpoint, the move still makes some sense but comes with a very significant complication, and that is addressing who is the Leafs’ second-line center? I love William Nylander, but the reality of the situation works very much against him. He is not the right person to move into the middle, nor is Kerfoot anything other than an underwhelming alternative. I in no way share Elliotte Friedman’s optimism that Mitch Marner can be that guy, and think the internal options make the Leafs worse than if they tried to find the proper wing supports for Tavares instead.
For me, Marner excels because of the higher position of the winger in the defensive zone that allows him to keep the defenseman honest, and control the breakouts. Shadowing a primary part of the offensive zone attack isn’t something new to Marner, but isn’t the best part of his defensive zone game. On the flip side of that, in the offensive zone, I have the reservations that many do about the Marner’s ability to force his way into the tougher parts of the ice. He’s now more willing to go there, but he can still be shut down in this regard, as can Tavares (all things being equal) and that’s part of the need for exploring other options as center.
That’s not saying don’t move Tavares to the wing, but it’s acknowledging that the Leafs would very likely need to move on from one of Marner or Nylander to acquire or afford a proper second-line center, and this seems to be getting close to Shanahan’s “we’re not making moves for the sake of making moves” territory. Even though having Matthews, Tavares, and the new guy would improve the depth of the Leafs top-six center situation. So again, there’s that. I can’t be the only person who thinks a Tavares-Kadri-Robertson line could be at least a little fun. (It’s not going to happen, but at least a little fun to think about.)
There’s also something about looking at moves for the sake of moves as not being worth it if the Leafs don’t look substantially better as a result of it. The Leafs might end up moving talent for talent, but the justification will come in the type of player that returns. From strictly a point of making an example using a player that is potentially available. Trading Nylander for someone like Mark Schiefele is in fact a modest downgrade in skill and age in order to get a center (and save a few bucks.) The deal doesn’t make Toronto better, but it does get the Toronto top six playing differently. (I instantly regret this example, and apologize to Mr. Nylander, his family, and his friends.)
What seems far more likely than this idea is the Leafs will continue to find ways to put the best support for Tavares areas of need around him. Mikheyev was certainly an attempt to make up for the lack of speed, and defensive zone play. Nylander was an attempt to put a capable playmaker next to him, and the shortcoming was always, “where’s the beef?” and finding someone to be the imposing presence on the line that can either also be a playmaker or can also pick up some defensive slack.
There are also a lot more options and affordable ones that can be explored if the Leafs look for the best complimentary wing players for Tavares. And while some options like Andrew Copp, David Perron, or Valeri Nichushkin might all be priced out of consideration, there are also cheaper gambles to explore like a Miles Wood reclamation project and to see if options like Abruzzese, Robertson, or Holmberg work beside JT.
With four months to kill until the next Leafs game, there’s plenty of time to get this sorted out and consider even stranger roster movements than moving Tavares out of his center position. This one certainly seemed worth discussing based on both the comments of Elliotte Friedman on 32 Thoughts and Kyle Dubas’ statement about putting players in a position to succeed. And as someone who was contemplating Tavares to wing at the beginning of the last season, I’m certainly one to latch onto this idea.
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