Reports of Maple Leafs’ Tavares Decline Are Exaggerated

John Tavares is now in his fifth season with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Although he’s been accused of slowing down over his years with the club, he’s still a productive player. In addition, he’s the team’s captain and brings a lot of intangibles to the room. 

This offseason, there was fear that Tavares would be too slow to compete at an elite NHL level. While he still has lightning-quick reflexes and great hand/eye coordination, the question for Tavares entering the season was whether he could keep up with his younger and faster teammates.

John Tavares Toronto Maple Leafs
John Tavares, Toronto Maple Leafs (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

The now 32-year-old Tavares was the first overall pick of the 2009 NHL Entry Draft. He has produced well as a Maple Leafs player; last season, he scored 27 goals and collected 49 assists (for 76 points). But this season, and one more year older, could he continue to produce and remain an asset to the Maple Leafs as they tried to engage once again on postseason success?

Tavares Opens the Season With a Flurry

As the sun was about to rise on the Maple Leafs’ regular season, the reports were that Tavares would likely not be able to play the team’s first game; he had missed most of the team’s training camp with an oblique injury. However, he recovered much faster than expected. He started against the Montreal Canadiens in the team’s first regular-season game, and although the Maple Leafs lost, he registered two assists.

Related: Maple Leafs’ John Tavares Is Headed for Career Season

Tavares got off to a flying start, even coming off his preseason oblique injury. In his first two games of the season, he scored a goal and added two assists. 

Part of the reason for Tavares’ strong start was that Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe made some moves designed to help Tavares’ line. He gave the Tavares line mostly offensive-zone starts. Whether these were to balance the offense between the Auston Matthews line and the Tavares line or whether they were to help mediate concerns that Tavares was slowing, who knows? But it created a perfect storm for generating Tavares’ offense. 

John Tavares Toronto Maple Leafs
John Tavares, Toronto Maple Leafs (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Reports were that Tavares had worked hard during the offseason – his first in a couple of seasons where he wasn’t healing an injury – on his speed and quick transitions. If so, the work was paying off. Sure, there was some age-related decline in speed, but his hands and reflexes remained intact. 

After four games, Tavares led his team in scoring with a goal and four assists. He had registered a point in the first four games the team played, and his assist against the Arizona Coyotes on Oct. 17 was a milestone. That point made him the fifth-highest NHL scorer since he joined the league at the start of the 2009-10 season. 

Related: Maple Leafs Commentary: John Tavares, Aging & Holding His Own

That assist was also the 900th point of his career, which made him the 12th active NHL player to reach that milestone. At that point, he was eight goals short of another milestone – his 400th goal. As he enters play after the Christmas break, he also only needs 17 games to reach the 1,000-game mark in his career.

Tavares Thrives on the Power Play During October

In a game against the Winnipeg Jets on Oct. 22, Tavares scored two power-play goals to lead his Maple Leafs team to a 4-1 win against the Jets. It was his first two-goal game this season, and he had only had one multiple-goal contest last season. 

Interestingly, it was Tavares’ third goal of the season, and all three had been scored with the man advantage. But that’s not new for Tavares, as he’s currently scored over 120 power-play goals in his career.

Still, Tavares was streaking; he put together a four-game, five-point streak as October was ending. He scored yet another power-power-play goal on the team’s horrible west coast road trip as his team lost to the Los Angeles Kings 4-2. 

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As November rolled around, Tavares was still the Maple Leafs’ leading scorer with four goals and six assists (for 10 points) in nine games. He had produced at least one point in nine of those 10 games, and he was answering Maple Leafs fans’ concerns about his ability to help the team win games.

November Starts Even Better Than October for Tavares

Tavares’ November started with a bang. In a Nov. 2 game against the Philadelphia Flyers, he scored three goals and added an assist in the team’s 5-2 win. Again, one of Tavares’ goals (and the assist) came with the man advantage. At the end of that game, he had scored seven goals and added seven assists in his first 11 games of the season. 

After the first game in November, Tavares was sitting above the point-per-game pace that he’d only achieved once in his career. That was his first season with the Maple Leafs in 2018-19, when he scored his career-best 47 goals and added 41 assists (for 88 points) in 82 games.

Mitch Marner John Tavares Timothy Liljegren Celebrate Toronto Maple Leafs
Mitch Marner, John Tavares, and Timothy Liljegren celebrate a goal for the Toronto Maple Leafs
(Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Tavares continued his November pace by scoring four goals and adding an assist in his first three games. On Nov. 15, he hit another milestone by scoring the 400th goal of his career against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Although he had missed hitting the scoresheet for a couple of games, he still had nine goals and added nine assists (for 18 points) in 17 games.

Tavares Has Another Four-Game Point Streak

Toward the end of November, Tavares went on another four-game point-scoring steak; it included a goal against his former New York Islanders team. In that four-game run, Tavares collected seven points; two were assists in a 4-3 win over the Minnesota Wild.

Related: The TJ Oshie Trade Analyzed

Tavares’ streak put him at 25 points in 22 games. However, his evading of Father Time was no longer the front-page story for the Maple Leafs. In the right-wing spot of the second line, his linemate Mitch Marner was starting a streak of his own. When Tavares scored on a rebound of a Marner shot against the Dallas Stars, that helped Marner stretch his point-scoring streak to 20 games; Marner’s streak eventually ended at 23 games.

Mitch Marner Toronto Maple Leafs
Mitch Marner, Toronto Maple Leafs (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

That goal ended a five-game goal-scoring drought for the 32-year-old Tavares. He was still then a point-a-game player with 13 goals and 14 assists (for 27 points) in 27 games on the season, and more than half (14 of 27) of his points had come with the man advantage.

Where Is Tavares Now, Emerging From the Christmas Break?

Tavares’ December has been slower, but he still delivered in a timely manner. There was little chance he was going to continue the blistering pace he’d started the season with. But he was still producing at his career pace. 

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He scored a goal and added an assist against the Anaheim Ducks in the team’s 7-0 shutout on Dec. 13. After a late November cooldown, he had scored two goals and added two assists in his last four games. In the Maple Leafs’ last game on Dec. 22, he had a power-play assist on Marner’s game-winning goal. Tavares had been held off the scoresheet for three games in a row. 

Related: Removing the Maple Leafs From the Cup – Some Personal Thoughts

So, where is Tavares now coming out of the Christmas break? The Maple Leafs’ captain remains close to a point-a-game pace with 14 goals and 17 assists (for 31 points) in 34 games. The future Hockey Hall of Famer is out-performing the expectations of many. His playmaking has not declined, he’s scoring at his career pace, and he’s lost none of his skills as a goal scorer. As the 2022-23 season is proving, reports of Tavares’ decline were greatly exaggerated.

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