Introducing The Hockey Writers’ Countdown to Puck Drop series. From now until the puck drops on the 2019-20 NHL’s regular season on Oct. 2 when the Toronto Maple Leafs host the Ottawa Senators, we’ll be producing content that’s connected to the number of days remaining on that particular day. Some posts may be associated with a player’s number, while others will be connected to a year or length of time. We’re really excited about this series as we take you through the remainder of summer in anticipation of the return of NHL hockey.
It was supposed to be a big year for the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2018-19. While it would take a while to get William Nylander locked up on a multi-year deal, the Maple Leafs had signed arguably one of the biggest free agents on the market and native of the Toronto area – John Tavares.
Call it what you want, the seven-year deal not only gave Tavares a homecoming of sorts giving him the opportunity to play for his childhood team, but it made it so that the 28-year-old would be donning the Maple Leafs blue and white for the better part of the next decade.
But with a contract of that magnitude in a fishbowl city like Toronto, comes both pressure and responsibility. Not ready to carry a team could put a player in a recession that could have damaging effects on their career. That said, Tavares came out with a bang to start his Maple Leafs career and, in doing so, became just one of just eight players to record 47 goals or more in season for the storied franchise.
The Tavares Homecoming
October 3, 2018, Tavares stepped onto the ice with the Maple Leafs crest tattooed on the front of his jersey for his first regular season game with the team he grew up watching. Fittingly enough, it was the team’s season opener against divisional and long-time rivals – the Montreal Canadiens.
Forget for a second the hype that surrounded this moment for both the player and the fans of the franchise, it took just under two periods of play for the newly acquired star to tally his first goal as Maple Leaf.
For a player who grew up watching the Maple Leafs, it seemed poetic that he would score his first goal with the team in his first regular season game – all against the Canadiens and one of the best goalies presently in the game.
But the second period, go-ahead tally was just his first of the season and first of what would be his best offensive output thus far throughout his career.
Joining Elite Company
Prior to joining the Maple Leafs last offseason, Tavares had recorded 35-plus goals in just two of his nine seasons with the New York Islanders. He had 37 in 82 games in 2017-18, with his previous career-high coming when he tallied 38 in 82 games in 2014-15.
But given the storyline of returning to Toronto and the offensive power that surrounded him in his first season with the Maple Leafs, it was almost a foregone conclusion that he would top his previous career-high in the goal department. The only question was by how much.
Well, Tavares answered that question quickly and put to bed any early-season doubters when he tallied another three goals in just his third game with the Maple Leafs – a 7-6 win in Chicago on Oct. 7. He followed that up with another two goals in their next showing against Dallas just two days later – another win for the team and giving Tavares six goals in just four games to start the year.
The hat trick against Chicago was the first of two on the year for Tavares – who tallied another four-goal game in a Maple Leafs win over the Florida Panthers on Mar. 25, on route to finishing the year with 47 goals.
Not only did Tavares establish a new career-high in his debut season with the Maple Leafs, he also became just the sixth player in franchise history to score 47 goals during a regular season and it was just the eighth time in franchise history that a Maple Leaf has accomplished the feat – joining Lanny McDonald (47 in 1977-78), Frank Mahovlich (48 in 1960-61), Gary Leeman (51 in 1989-90), Rick Vaive who did it three times (51 in 1982-83, 52 in 1983-84 and 54 in 1981-82) and Dave Andreychuk (53 in 1993-94).
The 47 goals gives Tavares 319 in 751 regular season games over his 10 season thus far in the NHL. That’s not a bad look for his first season with the Maple Leafs, and gives fans of the team a lot of hope for the remaining six years of his current contract in Toronto.