What John Tavares’ Absence Has Taught Us About the Maple Leafs

It’s been a painful two weeks for the Toronto Maple Leafs. They lost their captain John Tavares to a broken finger on Oct. 16 and have looked uninspired, for the most part, ever since. In the six games since the injury, the Maple Leafs have accumulated just six points with a 2-2-2 record — an even .500 in terms of points percentage. But even worse, they’ve played some poor hockey, especially considering the team’s talent level and their lofty expectations going into the season.

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The Maple Leafs have looked uninspired since Tavares went down with a broken finger on Oct. 16. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

The on-ice product has largely been disappointing, and losing a superstar is never a good thing. But on the other hand, seeing the Maple Leafs function without their captain for the first time since his acquisition has been eye-opening. It’s given us a chance to see the young stars in an even brighter spotlight, and the depth players in bigger roles. Suffice it to say that the results haven’t been encouraging.

But what exactly have we learned about the team over these past two weeks? Just how much do the Maple Leafs miss Tavares?

The Team Lacks Toughness

There are two major complaints about the Maple Leafs’ efforts over the past six games from a visual standpoint, and they both fall into one category: toughness. The team has shown a lack of consistency from game to game — mental toughness, if you will. They’ve also shown an inability to fight back against physical teams and to stand up for one another. Is there a lack of leadership in Tavares’ absence?

Let’s tackle the question of consistency and mental toughness first.

Consistently Inconsistent

The team’s schedule has undoubtedly been rough, and that’s arguably the biggest cause of the inconsistent start. With 14 games in just 28 days, the Maple Leafs are tied for the league lead in games played. Add in the four back-to-backs that they’ve had to endure and you’ve got yourself a recipe for lots of fatigue.

Have the players given up on coach Mike Babcock? (John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports)

But the poor play and inconsistent effort has seemed to go beyond just fatigue. The team generally looks disengaged, and it’s not easy to pinpoint why. Have they given up on head coach Mike Babcock? Well, half the team was just brought in over the summer and they probably want to impress their new boss more than anything else, so that seems counter-intuitive. Are they simply lost without Tavares to lead the way? Another version of these Maple Leafs, led by all the same stars, finished with 105 points without Tavares in 2016-17. Are they that dependent on him now?

It’s hard to say without actually being in the room. What’s clear, though, is that their effort needs to be much higher on a night-to-night basis, and that starts with the team’s best players.

Physical Toughness

Physical toughness and push-back is a separate issue, but it’s certainly raised more questions about the competitiveness of this team. In recent games, we’ve seen both Auston Matthews and Tyson Barrie take heavy, possibly questionable hits, with no response from teammates. 

Matthews was laid out by a high hit from San Jose Sharks defenceman Brendon Dillon while both Jake Muzzin and Morgan Rielly watched on. Luckily for Toronto, their star centre wasn’t hurt on the play, but imagine how much worse it could have been. 

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That lack of push-back was noticed by fans, and I’d bet it was noted by other teams around the league, too. The Maple Leafs don’t have a reputation as a very physical team already, and incidents like these only make that more apparent. If you go into a game knowing that your opponent won’t fight back, that makes things a lot easier. A team like the Boston Bruins are likely licking their chops every time they see a Maple Leaf on their schedule.

And how do they solve this issue? Do they bring someone in via trade? Washington Capitals forward Tom Wilson has been the poster boy for grit and skill for the last few years and he’d probably be adored by fans in Toronto. Or is this issue something that can be resolved internally? 

A player like Wilson could be a huge boost to a team like Toronto. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

We actually saw Wilson lay a heavy hit on Barrie the other night. After all the criticisms about the Maple Leafs’ lack of toughness, it was noted softie Frederik Gauthier that stepped in to take exception. I’m not sure we’ve ever seen the gentle giant do something like that before, so it is possible that the team has taken a hint and aims to address the issue moving forward.

Tavares Has Been Underappreciated

I don’t know if there’s ever been a 47-goal, 88-point scorer that’s been as underappreciated as Tavares. Last season it seemed that Mitch Marner was the talk of the town — and rightfully so with his 94-point, breakout campaign. But something that was talked about by some people last year is how consistent Tavares is at both ends of the ice, and how much he helped Marner reach those heights.

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Tavares has arguably become underappreciated in Toronto. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette)

Mystifying Marner

I’ve discussed it before and not to say, “I told you so,” but it seems like Marner is feeling Tavares’ absence more than anyone else. He has 16 points in 14 games, sure, but he hasn’t looked like the same electrifying player that he was last season.

Marner hasn’t looked like himself this season, largely due to Tavares’ absence. (John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports)

Marner has tallied just four points (no goals) at 5-on-5 this season. That’s the same level of production as Cody Ceci and Dmytro Timashov. Adjusting for ice time, Marner’s 5-on-5 scoring is way down at 1.29 points per hour — slightly better than Trevor Moore, and slightly worse than Gauthier. He was tied for fourth in the league with Tavares at 2.87 last season, by the way.

The funny thing is that Marner is actually right on pace to match last season’s output. The issue, though, is that he’s now paid like a top-six forward in the league, meaning that expectations are much higher. Despite popular opinion, Tavares was the one driving that line last year — not Marner. And it looks like that trend will continue this season. 

The Offence Has Dried Up

The Maple Leafs will need Tavares to find his form quickly, too. Along with their 18th-ranked points percentage of .536, their peripheral numbers are no more convincing. Adjusting for games played, Toronto sits just seventh in offensive output with 3.44 goals per game. That’s not bad at all, but nothing to write home about considering their offensive arsenal. It’s worsened when you consider that they’ve allowed the second-most goals in the league with 48 — just one fewer than they’ve scored. Things just aren’t clicking at either end of the ice for this team right now.

The Maple Leafs’ offence has largely dried up over the past two weeks without Tavares. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

Since Tavares went down, they look even worse: their offence has largely dried up, falling to the middle of the pack at 16th with just 2.92 goals per game. Meanwhile, they’re now allowing 3.41 goals per game, 10th-worst in the league over the last two weeks. They’ve also fallen below the 50 percent threshold in both shot share (48.95) and expected goals (46.48) at 5-on-5 without the captain. 

Sometimes, when a team isn’t winning you can point to bad luck. Unfortunately for the Maple Leafs, that’s not the case here — they’ve simply been bad. Injecting Tavares (and eventually Zach Hyman) back into the lineup will help, but they’ve got a lot of work to do to turn things around.

Stats from http://naturalstattrick.com/