John Tavares made a polarizing decision to leave the New York Islanders to join his hometown Toronto Maple Leafs last summer. The decision left Islanders fans more than a little perturbed but Maple Leafs fans could not have been happier.
After being eliminated by the Boston Bruins in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 2018, fans in Toronto needed something to lift their spirits. The Tavares signing seemed to do the trick. Now we can take a thorough look back at Tavares’ first regular season in a Maple Leafs’ jersey.
To say there were high expectations for Tavares in Toronto would be an understatement. He was walking into a locker room which was known for its offensive ability and he would need to be on his game in order to keep up.
Prior to joining the Maple Leafs, Tavares’ career-highs in goals and points had been 38 and 86, respectively. In his first season with Toronto, he set new career-highs in both. He narrowly missed scoring 50 goals, finishing with 47 and tacked on 41 assists to end the season with 88 points. It is safe to say expectations had been surpassed.
Tavares was the lone major offensive addition to the Maple Leafs’ roster last season. The Leafs had lost key contributors Tyler Bozak and James van Riemsdyk to free agency. If you added up their goals in their final season in Toronto you would have 47 goals. Well wouldn’t you know it, Tavares perfectly made up for the production the Maple Leafs lost and he did it as just one player. His goal total is chronicled in our Countdown to Puck Drop series here.
He brought more than just his offence to the team. He brought a calming leadership to Toronto, as illustrated by being named an alternate captain. As the Maple Leafs featured a very young core, highlighted by Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander, Tavares’ experience fortified the team with a calming presence. Tavares is known for his stoic personality, but as a former teammate told Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman, “he wants to concentrate on hockey”. There were no distractions for Tavares this season, a welcome change in a dressing room filled with contract drama. You know what you are getting with him and that’s a player who will lead by example and focus on the game.
His season highlight was his first-career four-goal game against the Florida Panthers on March 25. His efforts powered the Maple Leafs ahead and they downed the Panthers 7-5. At the time, the four goals put his season total at 45 with six games remaining. There was hope that he could make it to 50 by the season’s end but it was not meant to be. He tacked on another two goals to bring his total to 47.
There were a few contributing factors to his success. The first was being paired with Marner. Marner had spent much of the last season playing on Bozak’s or Nazem Kadri’s wings. He had decent success but being paired with Tavares was a huge step up. It was a symbiotic relationship, as both players saw increases in their offensive output. Marner accumulated a career-high 68 assists, in large part due to playing beside Tavares, leading to some asking if he is a top-five winger in the NHL. As Andrew Berkshire described on Sportsnet 590, “This is a thing John Tavares does for his line-mates. They have career seasons with him”.
Marner brought the best out of Tavares, as the combination of the goal-scoring centre and the playmaking winger lead to Tavares’ best season to date. His previous linemates lacked the playmaking abilities that Marner possesses. Anders Lee scored more goals in his season beside Tavares but the assists did not pile up. Likewise, Matt Moulson and Kyle Okposo never saw the kind of production Marner had shown. Pairing him with Tavares was a recipe for success. A recipe that was read and executed perfectly.
Tavares was also able to play considerable time on the Maple Leafs top power-play unit. As Toronto featured so many options offensively, Tavares was not forced to play the lead role on the power play. While Matthews, Marner, and Kadri looked to set up a big play, Tavares would find himself screening the opposing goaltender. He managed to get a number of easier goals by tipping in the puck or making a quick move in front of the goalie. Maple Leafs fans may recognize this as van Riemsdyk’s signature move.
Toronto’s depth played a major role in Tavares’ ten power-play goals and much of his offensive contribution as well. It proved difficult for opposing teams to deal with the revolving door of offensive options the Maple Leafs had at their disposal. This was a situation that Tavares had not been a part of previously. In New York he was the top player and his role was affected by it. In Toronto, he was one of a few top players and opponents were forced to give him less attention, which in turn, allowed him to contribute more.
Overall Grade: A
Beyond having a Hart-calibre season, there was not much more fans could have asked of Tavares in his first season in Toronto. As noted, he had career-highs in both goals and points and made up for Toronto’s losses in free agency by doing so.
Tavares was spectacular for the Maple Leafs, perhaps too much so as Marner’s career year now has the team in another potential holdout situation. However, it is hardly fair to blame Tavares for that.
The Maple Leafs were never quite firing on all cylinders in 2018-19. Nylander’s contract holdout lasted until December at which point Matthews got injured. By the time he returned the team went into a stretch of poor play that they never seemed to get out of. Amidst a disappointing season for the team, Tavares was a beacon of hope. The hometown boy more than lived up to his end of things in his first season back home and if Toronto can re-sign Marner before the 2019-20 season begins, we may, at last, see this team’s true potential reached.