How John Tavares changes the shape of the Maple Leafs

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John Tavares is a good enough player to change the complexion of the Toronto Maple Leafs. (Mike Stobe/NHLI via Getty Images)
John Tavares is a good enough player to change the complexion of the Toronto Maple Leafs. (Mike Stobe/NHLI via Getty Images)

It’s far from a hot take to say that when John Tavares signed with the Toronto Maple Leafs their prognosis for 2018-19 – and beyond – improved significantly.

Tavares is a legitimate superstar who would make any team better. This is a guy coming off an 84-point season – if you have four centres better than the the 27-year-old, you need to find a better league than the NHL to play in.

That said, while the plan for the Maple Leafs from here may seem as simple as just putting Tavares on the ice and waiting for good things to happen, it’s a touch more complicated than that.

Last season, the club’s top three lines served very different purposes. The Auston Matthews line was used in virtually any situation against any competition. Nazem Kadri’s unit served more of a shutdown role, and Tyler Bozak’s group was a sheltered scoring line that took a lot of offensive zone faceoffs and did battle with lower-level competition. As silly as it sounds, Tavares is replacing Bozak in this rotation, although he’s capable of a great deal more than the St.Louis-bound veteran.

Clearly, Tavares is a good enough player to be used in any scenario. Besides his prolific point production, he’s generally defensively-responsible, wins faceoffs, and drives play. The last time the Maple Leafs faced him they even got to see him show off some sandpaper as he wiped out Morgan Rielly.

Via NHL.com
Via NHL.com

The question is how exactly Toronto wants to deploy him – other than liberally on the power play. Essentially, there are two options. The first is to have him anchor an all-situations line like Matthews, which would have Mike Babcock rolling three top lines indiscriminately and leaving his best units from last season intact. As usual, the fourth line would just mop up the leftovers.

Here’s how using that philosophy might look, keeping in mind that the fourth unit isn’t much better than a guess at this point and there could be moves to be made:

Zach Hyman – Auston Matthews – William Nylander

Andreas Johnsson – John Tavares – Kasperi Kapanen

Patrick Marleau – Nazem Kadri – Mitch Marner 

Josh Leivo – Josh Jooris – Connor Brown

You could swap Brown and Kapanen there if you like, but the idea is that the Maple Leafs try to pummel opponents with sheer depth. Babcock wouldn’t have to put his tactician’s hat on very often as his big three all play whenever.

Another way to configure the team would be to do whatever you could to unleash Tavares offensively. In that scenario, you continue give Kadri shutdown minutes, and a right winger that better reflects that role. Tavares wouldn’t be nearly as sheltered as Bozak was last season, but he could be deployed in more favourable offensive situations. That setup would look something like this:

Zach Hyman – Auston Matthews – William Nylander

Andreas Johnsson – John Tavares – Mitch Marner

Patrick Marleau – Nazem Kadri – Connor Brown

Josh Leivo – Josh Jooris – Kasperi Kapanen

With this grouping you could also theoretically use Tavares more like Matthews last season, and try and get the 20-year-old in the best scoring spots. Either way, this would mean a less balanced lineup with two truly elite scoring lines and a heavy defensive burden on Kadri. It could even go a step further if Marleau was sent to flank Matthews with Hyman grinding it out on the third line, but this musing assumes Babcock won’t separate his dynamic top three from last season.

By virtue of his skill and consistency, Tavares changes the shape of the Maple Leafs lineup with his presence. We don’t know the specifics just yet, but it’s not hard to guess at a couple of things already. He will be a centre on one the club’s power play units. It’s safe to assume he’ll log heavy minutes as well – last season was his first averaging less than 20 minutes a night since 2010-2011.

Beyond that it’s not entirely clear what a this lineup featuring John Tavares looks like. We’re 94 days from knowing with 100 percent certainty, but you can bet your bottom dollar there are Leafs fans everywhere dying to find out.

 

 

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