The Toronto Maple Leafs took a 2-1 series lead on Friday night. The three games have seen very different outcomes, with Toronto dominating Game 1 and the Tampa Bay Lightning dominating Game 2. However, Game 3 was the closest yet. Toronto took a 3-0 lead only for Tampa to climb back and make it 3-2. Eventually, the Leafs scored two empty-net goals to seal it and take the series lead. This means at the very worst they will be heading back to Toronto with a split. However, one name that has been much too quiet so far is John Tavares. The Leafs have taken a lead with their $11 million captain having one assist. John Tavares is what could push the Maple Leafs over the top for a round one win.
John Tavares Needs to Come Alive to Help The Leafs Win Round One
Invisible Start Thus Far
Everyone knows the unfortunate events that happened in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs last year for Tavares. He took a knee to the head and was done for the season. This year, he looked to bounce back and be the difference-maker the Leafs paid him to be. He posted a very respectable 76 points in 79 games in the regular season, staying very healthy throughout. However, the playoffs have been a different story.
So far, to say Tavares has been quiet would be an understatement. He has just one assist in the series and it was a secondary assist on the power play. On top of that, he has been invisible at 5v5. Tavares currently sits at a CF% of 42% and an xGF% of 40%. This ranks 10th and 12th amongst 13 Leaf forwards for the series. He ranks 9th in CF/60 and 12th in xGF/60, the Leafs are simply doing nothing with him on the ice, and that is unacceptable. It’s gotten so bad that Sheldon Keefe put William Nylander back on his line to try and kickstart both of them. Nylander has been quiet too, as he currently has no points. However, Nylander’s underlying numbers are much stronger. He has had some chances and gotten somewhat unlucky.
The bottom line for Tavares is that he is being paid a lot of money to produce. Currently, he has not done so. The offence has come from Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and depth pieces like David Kampf and Pierre Engvall. While that is a great thing right now, it won’t be sustainable.
Good News for Toronto (or not)
Leaf fans could look at this Tavares slump in two ways. The pessimist may look at it and wonder what such a large percentage of the salary cap is being dedicated to for almost no results. However, the optimist would look at it and understand that being up 2-1 without some of your best players contributing is actually a good thing. If you trust regression, you would hope that Tavares will eventually snap out of it and add some offence of his own.
To do this, Tavares needs to start slowing the game down to his pace. This series has been a fast one between two quick teams. Unfortunately, skating has never really been Tavares’ strength. However, the way he worked around that is by using his amazing hockey smarts and vision to create chances for himself and his teammates. Rarely was Tavares ever going to burn past you, but he would and can use his body to shield from the puck and create problems that way.
With Nylander back on his line, the Leafs need to look to get the puck deep so Tavares can do his work. The two fit well together because Nylander can score from the perimeter and in front of the net. Tavares isn’t your typical “grinder” but he can effectively use his frame to work players off the puck and find his teammates. Doing this would allow him to play to his strengths on the ice. Slowing the pace down a bit and avoiding a track meet that goes end-to-end.
Matchup Against Stamkos
Even better for Tavares and the Leafs, on the other side of things, not every Tampa Bay player has looked great either. Specifically, Steven Stamkos. Stamkos has taken a backseat in terms of being the best player on his team, much like Tavares.
However, he too is expected to provide some much-needed depth scoring and hasn’t done that yet. This series very well could come down to which one of these guys gets going first. Stamkos is currently on a line with Nikita Kucherov, and you know it will only be a matter of time before they get scoring.
Being Himself is All That’s Needed
Luckily for Tavares, he doesn’t need to be the best player in the series. He just needs to be himself. The reason they brought Tavares in is that they knew as he took a step back, that Mathews and Marner would be taking the top competition. Now, the Leafs just need him to be what he’s been for a few seasons. Someone who can chip in at 5v5 and make a difference on the power play. Tavares has been slightly under a point per game in three straight seasons now, and that’s what they need currently.
He doesn’t need to be scoring and putting up multiple points every night. But more than one secondary assist in nine periods of play won’t cut it either. If Tavares can find the game he has been playing over the past few seasons, it could be what the Leafs need to close out a formidable opponent in Tampa Bay. There is nothing showing that Matthews and Marner will slow down, but the addition of Tavares chipping in could help steal another game, which would signal disaster for the Lightning.
This is a team game, and at the end of the day a whole series won’t come down to one player. But the Leafs need their captain John Tavares to step up.