The new Maple Leafs lines don’t seem to be working for John Tavares

Photo credit:Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Jon Steitzer
1 month ago
This season has been a bit of a step back for John Tavares. He started off a bit stronger being near a point per game player through the first three months of the season, but the new year has been harsher, and a 4 point January and 8 point February along with smaller 5v5 role playing with Bobby McMann and Nick Robertson begs the question what is next for John Tavares and his $11M cap hit.
When it comes to $11M players, it is hard to separate the player from the contract and while some decline for Tavares has been anticipated for some time, dealing with it and not having the resources either through entry level contracts or assets/cap space to address it through trade mean that the Leafs have to come up with unique solutions. Kyle Dubas spoke about the Tavares situation a couple years back when John experienced another blip in production.
Kyle Dubas in May, 2022 (via MLHS):
Dubas: I view my job, whether it is John or anybody else, to be giving Sheldon and the players the pieces around them that are going to allow their primes to be extended as long as possible. I have never gone into any long-term deal and felt that the back-half may be a challenge, or that the player will need to adapt.
As players age, we have the resources here to be able to help them as much as possible in every regard on and off the ice. We need to continue to do that.
In regards to roster construction, players are going to change as they age inevitably. As a management team, we need to support them with pieces that are going to best allow them to maintain their primes as long as possible.
Whether it is John or anybody else on our team that you view as over… Whatever people view the prime as — some say it is 24, some say it is 27, and some would say it is 30. Whatever it is, we want people who can come in and maintain that level as long as possible. That falls on us.
A big part of getting Tavares out of that was putting him with William Nylander, who better than any other Leafs forward other than Auston Matthews has the ability to create and drive offensive play. That has been a significant part of keeping Tavares going and it’s no surprise that now that Tavares and Nylander have been split up again, we are once again talking about John Tavares’ declining production.
There is a bit of contradiction in complaining about Tavares and Nylander being split up and at the same time saying that the Leafs should be spreading their offensive talent across three lines. I’d just say that when talking about spreading that offence around it needs to come with the caveat that John Tavares might not be a primary offensive option anymore. It is more about spreading Matthews, Marner, and Nylander across three lines, and Tavares sticking with one of them and from the numbers below, the strongest case is for keeping him with Nylander.
The idea of splitting up Matthews and Marner doesn’t seem to have a lot interest either and maybe it’s a bit more about considering that Bertuzzi and Domi might be the start of a decent 3rd option together, that leads to Nylander and Tavares staying together while Matthews still stays with Marner. Most of the issues in the execution of the plan seem to come down the absence of one player and when he returns the Leafs have the opportunity to see what the real top nine looks like.
The return of Calle Jarnkrok seemingly opens up an opportunity to see what Toronto can really get out of John Tavares. Besides Bertuzzi and Nylander, Jarnkrok is the forward that Tavares has done the best with this season and putting him with Tavares and either Bertuzzi or Nylander seemingly gives Toronto a legitimate third line option. Even if Jarnkrok isn’t the answer for the Tavares line, Jarnkrok becomes a strong option to play with Bertuzzi and Domi instead of Nylander, giving them a more reliable third line, while Toronto attempts to role with a McMann-Tavares-Nylander line instead, although Toronto also needs to prepare for when the McMann bubble bursts, and he becomes a strong fourth line option until his next offensive heater.
Dubas has the right idea with supporting Tavares as he ages and confronts limitations and presently it seems like Sheldon Keefe might be asking too much of his captain to carry two inexperienced, somewhat streaky scorers and on a line devoid of playmakers, creating offence will be a struggle and McMann isn’t going to be capable of doing all the defensive work himself. Even if Sheldon Keefe remains attached to the Bertuzzi-Domi-Nylander line, swapping out Robertson for Jarnkrok when he’s ready gives the line some more responsibility and a bit more comfort in carrying and distributing the puck. (That looks to be the initial starting place for Jarnkrok and Robertson practiced as an extra on Friday.)
It is unlikely that the Leafs have the resources to make an upgrade at centre this trade deadline, but the idea of giving either Domi or Tavares the opportunity to move to the wing from time to time is something that needs to be considered and given the lack of centre options, maybe the solution in the short term comes via a strong puck controlling winger instead, though the trade market isn’t overflowing with them either.
In the long term it is going to be important to for the Leafs to look at whether their captain is going to be a part of their plans beyond next season. If he isn’t, that needs to be a tough conversation and one that potentially involves the captain being open to exploring trade options. This doesn’t seem particularly likely as all signs point to Toronto being where Tavares would like to end his career and his next contract being far more friendly to the team.
So in that case, it needs to be planned for what Tavares’ right sized role looks like on the Leafs knowing that his contract next year is going to continue to be a lightning rod. The decision needs to be made if John Tavares is now a top six left winger or the plans are for him to be a third line centre and plan his offseason development path around that. The Leafs also need to look at a true option for a second line centre and while there will still be limited cap resources, looking at Elias Lindholm should be part of the Leafs plans.
For the first time in a long time the Leafs also have potential internal centre options in development coming up as both Easton Cowan and Fraser Minten could be on path for that assignment, with Minten looking like a potential 3C option as soon as next season. (Cowan seems more likely to be a winger at the pro level). Those entry level contract resources with talent beyond their cap hits will potentially ease the Leafs next season as the final year of Tavares’ $11M contract expires.
Tavares is still a 20+ goal, likely 60 point player this season and most teams would be happy to get those kind of numbers out of their second/third line. It really is just the cap hit and it was always going to look especially bad in the last couple of years. I think the plan was that Leafs fans would be dealing with it better because of all the cups this group was supposed to have won by now.
Data from Natural Stat Trick

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