Maple Leafs Getting Return on Tavares Investment

John Tavares is not the fastest player. At 6-foot-1, he’s not the biggest and he’s certainly not the most physical. But boy, does the Toronto Maple Leafs’ centre know how to be in the right place at the right time.

On Monday night in a 7-5 win over the Florida Panthers, Tavares set a new single-game career-high with four goals. It was his 10th career hat-trick and gives him 45 goals on the season in 76 games. He is now just three goals behind Alex Ovechkin for the league-lead. Five weeks ago, he was nine goals behind the Great Eight.

If you count only even-strength goals, Tavares’ ranks first in the NHL with 36, four more than any other player.

Toronto Maple Leafs John Tavares
John Tavares has made up significant ground on Alex Ovechkin in the quest for the Rocket Richard Trophy as the NHL’s top goal scorer (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn)

Tavares scoring goals is nothing new. Since he entered the league in 2009-10, he has 317 career goals, the third-most in the NHL in those nine seasons, trailing only Ovechkin and Steven Stamkos. Since 2014-15, Tavares’ 181 goals rank second in the NHL, behind only Ovechkin.

But it’s how Tavares scores so many of his goals that have made him such a worthwhile investment for the Maple Leafs. More often than not, he does it the old-fashioned way: by going to the net. While the ‘new NHL’ is very much about speed, there will always be a place for players who have a knack for finding space and finishing off plays in dangerous areas.

John Tavares the Rebound Master

Ever notice how often John Tavares gets inside position on a defender and bangs one home or scores a tap-in goal off a rebound? Me too.

In the above clip, Tavares reacts so quickly to the Morgan Rielly shot that there’s almost nothing Mike Matheson (19) can do (unless he obstructs him without the puck and takes a penalty). While this may have been his hat-trick goal from Monday, it’s happened a lot this season and can be credited to much more than just quick reflexes. It’s being smart.

A shot map of John Tavares’ unblocked shot attempts this season for the Maple Leafs, which shows the majority of his chances and goals come from the middle of the slot. (Map courtesy of Sean Tierney at @ChartingHockey).

Looking at the shot map above, it’s clear Tavares creates a ton of chances and scores a lot of goals from right in front of the net. His average shot distance from the net is 23.11 feet, which is the second-closest of Maple Leafs forwards (only Zach Hyman has an average distance that is closer to the net). In total, I count less than 10 goals that are outside of the middle/lower slot area (in between the face-off dots and at or below the hashmarks). Hyman is great in this regard too, but he has 20 goals and Tavares has 45.

The former first-overall pick understands the game in a way that most players don’t. It’s this ‘hockey IQ’ that allows him to go unnoticed much of the time in and around the opposition’s net, when he often pounces on a loose puck and bangs it home at just the right time or gets good body position on a defender in order to deflect a shot past the goaltender. It’s about timing, body positioning, strength and, as mentioned, quick reflexes. You often hear the term ‘he makes it look easy.’ That’s Tavares in a nutshell.

Prior to Monday’s outburst, John Tavares was second in the NHL in shots from the slot, behind only Colorado Avalanche centre Nathan MacKinnon. (Image courtesy The Point Hockey).

After Monday’s win, TSN’s Mark Master’s asked Tavares how he felt out on the ice and why he looked so comfortable.

“Just putting myself in good spots to be around the net for loose change or just getting open [and] being available as a pass, as an outlet and try to get lost in some of those areas,” he said. “Get a sense for when the puck is going to the net. Obviously you’ve got to have some feel for that…and obviously playing with the guys I’m playing with and the type of team we have, just try to go to the net and do the right thing and trust your instincts.”

When the entire NHL knows how you score your goals and they still can’t stop you, you know you’re pretty good at what you do.

Related: Jake Gardiner’s Absence Wearing on Maple Leafs’ Defence

Tavares Success Not Solely Tied to Marner

I want to get something else out of the way: Mitch Marner is not the only reason Tavares has smashed his previous career-high in goals, which was 38 in 2014-15. While the two have shown extraordinary chemistry together on the ice, Marner has the primary assist on only half of Tavares’ 32 goals at 5-on-5 this season (this is still an extremely high amount for one player but also shows that Tavares is much more than just a tap-in artist).

Toronto Maple Leafs' Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews
Maple Leafs’ centre John Tavares has played 85 per cent of his 5-on-5 minutes with Mitch Marner (right). But Marner’s breakout season is not the sole reason for Tavares’ success (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette)

Tavares has a higher goals per 60 minutes rate when playing with Kasperi Kapanen (2.9) or Andreas Johnsson (2.5), as opposed to Marner (1.59). Those sample sizes are indeed very small (82 and 120 minutes respectively compared to 981 for Marner), but the point is it’s not fair to jump to conclusions that Marner is the sole reason for Tavares production when he very well could still have a career-high in goals without Marner on his wing.

Marner absolutely is a play-driver in my mind, something that is very hard to do from the wing. But let’s not kid ourselves in thinking that Marner is doing all the work and Tavares is just the beneficiary of that work.

Related: How Do the RFA Rules Impact Marner and Matthews?

Can Tavares Crack 50 Goals?

Tavares has a legitimate chance at scoring 50 goals this season. The Maple Leafs next two games are against the Philadelphia Flyers and Ottawa Senators, who are both bottom-five in the NHL in goals against at 5-on-5. They also play the Montreal Canadiens and New York Islanders, two teams that are not trending in the right direction and have allowed the eighth and ninth-most 5-on-5 goals in the month of March.

It won’t be easy, however. Before his four-goal outburst, Tavares had three goals in his previous six games, which wouldn’t be quite enough.

If were to hit the 50-goal plateau by season’s end, he would become the Maple Leaf’s first 50-goal scorer since Dave Andreychuk in 1993-94.

*All advanced stats in this piece not already credited courtesy of Natural Stat Trick.