Maple Leafs making weaponizing John Tavares a priority

From about the moment John Tavares signed his free-agent contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs, fans would soon reflexively find themselves considering what Phase Two could look like for the former captain of the New York Islanders, now that he was a member of his hometown team.

Tavares was only a few weeks from turning 28 — and at that point nine seasons into his NHL career — when he announced his intentions while sharing that famous photo with that predictable choice of bedsheet from a childhood spent in the Toronto suburbs. Nearly a decade in the bank already for the talented centre, Tavares’ seven-year contract was to chew up what remained of his prime seasons, and carry him well into the back nine of his career.

Now, this isn’t to suggest that arguably the biggest free-agent splash in the franchise’s history is one to regret; only a cynic would believe otherwise — even with things both in and outside the organization’s control have failed to break firmly in its favour.

TORONTO, ON - JANUARY 18: John Tavares #91 of the Toronto Maple Leafs waits on a face off against the Winnipeg Jets during the third period at the Scotiabank Arena on January 18, 2021 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images)
TORONTO, ON - JANUARY 18: John Tavares #91 of the Toronto Maple Leafs waits on a face off against the Winnipeg Jets during the third period at the Scotiabank Arena on January 18, 2021 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images)

Why? Well, Tavares’ $77 million contract did include reasonable level of value despite being one of the richest in the NHL, having come in well below other offers on the table at the time. But most importantly, the captain’s career overlaps effortlessly with what should be considered the Leafs’ prime competing window. Even in the event that the club fails to seize it, and that one day Tavares fails to meet the expectations tied to $11 million in annual earnings, it doesn’t mean that he wasn’t a foundational piece worth adding.

Big picture, where I think many of us have gone wrong when sizing up Tavares’ game and the direction of his career is believing that this was binary — that either the captain would be at the height of his career, or he wouldn’t.

Instead, it seems there will be several stages for Tavares throughout his time with the Maple Leafs.

And that we’re already on to Phase Two.

And that Phase Two looks extremely good.

To begin Tavares’ third season in Toronto, we have seen a marked shift in how he’s being used by the coaching staff. His minutes once reserved for the biggest, most difficult matchups, Tavares — and, more specifically, his partnership with offensive wiz William Nylander — is now being saved to create mismatches at five on five, and even to a lesser extent on the Leafs’ power play.

So far, this effort to weaponize Tavares has worked remarkably well. Both he and Nylander should be considered among standouts for the Leafs through five games, combining to contribute over a point per outing. But before we go too far into detail on the plan for Tavares now, and what that means for his career arc and the Leafs’ success, let’s review how we arrived here.

Two seasons ago, Tavares changed everything for the Leafs in his first campaign with the team. Tavares and linemates Mitch Marner and Zach Hyman torched top competition at even strength, emerging as one of the most dominant trios in the league during a season in which the Leafs reached 100 points for a second consecutive season. Tavares hit a career high in goals and Marner flirted with the century mark in points. And what was best about the arrangement: while the Tavares’ line chewed up top opposition, Auston Matthews was freed up to take another step offensively against lesser groups.

Naturally, to have Tavares hold things down defensively was plan when the postseason rolled around that spring. If Tavares could even break even in the matchup with Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak in the rematch with the Boston Bruins, the Matthews line could provide the difference in the series. His focus being on the opposition, Tavares was limited to 10 even-strength offensive-zone starts in the entire seven-game clash. In the end, Tavares’ unit could not continue to dig themselves out of the built-in disadvantage after successfully steering those high-profile matchups in Toronto’s favour all season long. Overcoming that proved too tall of a task for Matthews’ line, and the Leafs lost in the first round for a third consecutive season.

When the next year rolled out around, the responsibilities stayed true for Tavares — though the start of the year was impacted by absence, injuries, and a change at head coach. Over time, we saw the transition from Mike Babcock’s ideas to those of Sheldon Keefe’s, but that didn’t seem to impact Tavares until he suffered one of his worst games as a member of the Maple Leafs.

We all remember Morgan Rielly picking himself up mentally and emotionally after Connor McDavid’s extraordinary first goal in Toronto just over a year ago, but that night was particularly awful for Tavares. No forward saw more of McDavid that night, as it was on Tavares again to focus primarily on the defensive side of things against the most difficult centre-ice matchup possible in the entire NHL.

Head to head with McDavid across nearly 10 even-strength minutes, Tavares trailed 20-5 in shot attempts, 13-3 in shots, 2-0 in goals and finished with a 21 percent expected goals.

As the Leafs reconvened for the NHL’s restart that summer, it seems Tavares’ responsibilities were weighing on Keefe during the five-game play-in loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets. Toggling between steering completely clear from Pierre-Luc Dubois to handling the bulk of the duties against Columbus’s top centre, to loading up the top line to create a true best-on-best scenario, it was clear that Keefe was trying to find the best way to use Tavares in the context of the situation.

That brings us back to this season.

While still early, one matchup versus McDavid and the Oilers provided insight into exactly how Keefe intends to use his captain. Shifting the most challenging matchups to Matthews’ plate and instituting a checking line with Alexander Kerfoot, Zach Hyman and Ilya Mikheyev, the Leafs had an answer for both top units — or the two superstars — in Edmonton, without having to use Tavares. In fact, Tavares was the only forward to avoid any overlap with McDavid in the opening 20 minutes of the Leafs’ first meeting versus the Oilers since that nightmare last season, his minutes almost exclusively reserved for matchups versus the third and fourth lines. (Things became a little more complicated when Joe Thornton exited with injury, leaving the leafs with 10 forwards).

Given how good they have been to start the year, Tavares and Nylander were, perhaps surprisingly, unable to create in those stark mismatches — which is as much of a reason as any for the Leafs’ loss on Wednesday night.

While laid out in plain sight versus the Oilers, freeing up Tavares has been the mandate since the start of the season. One hundred percent of Tavares’ zone starts came in the attacking end in Monday’s win over the Winnipeg Jets. He barely crossed paths with Thomas Chabot and Brady Tkachuk in two games versus the Ottawa Senators. And finally in the opener versus Montreal, Tavares saw the most head-to-head minutes against third-liner Jesperi Kotkaniemi.

Every question that seemed to originate from the first few days of Leafs training camp (Why is Joe Thornton on the No. 1 line? Why isn’t Zach Hyman playing in the top six? And even: Why are the power plays imbalanced?) seem to come back to one primary initiative to start the season:

Making Tavares the mismatch.

And it’s not an indictment on Tavares, or the decision to sign him in the first place. He doesn’t necessarily need to be sheltered to be a driver for the team.

Instead, it’s just the configuration that may work best for an immensely talented Leafs team desperately striving to find optimization.

So what does Phase 2 look like for John Tavares?

It might be found in the last five games.

And it’s not all bad. Not at all.

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