Analyzing which Maple Leafs should play on John Tavares’ wing

Hockey Central's Nick Kypreos, Brian Burke, Doug MacLean and Elliotte Friedman join Daren Millard to analyze the Toronto Maple Leafs signing John Tavares to a seven-year $77 million deal in free agency.

In case you haven’t heard, the Toronto Maple Leafs signed John Tavares to a seven-year deal worth $77 million, adding a legitimate superstar centre to a team that already had a better than average centre line last season.

After looking at the teams that were in on Tavares before July 1, I concluded that at 5-on-5 at least, he would probably be the Maple Leafs’ second-best centre after Auston Matthews. That means Nazem Kadri moves down to be their third line centre, effectively replacing Tyler Bozak.

As crazy as this Tavares news is, that ripple effect of putting him in the lineup may be as big of an improvement to the team as his talent is on its own. Last summer Kadri was ranked as the 28th-best centre in the NHL according to my data, with Tavares ranked sixth, and Matthews’ rookie season coming in at seventh. Even discounting Matthews’ improvements to his all-around game, that gives the Maple Leafs three first-line quality centres, two of which are in the top-10.

The only other team with two centres ranked top-10 in the NHL are the Pittsburgh Penguins, which goes to show the echelon of team that the Maple Leafs just thrust themselves into being — they’re no longer an underdog.

The question right now isn’t even how much better the Leafs are, because anyone paying attention knows they just took a huge leap forward, it’s who will Tavares play with?

When you’re building lines, ideally you want to have players accent each other, so if your starting point is Tavares, you find where he’s weakest and put someone who is strong in that area with him. Or, you find specific strengths that play well off of each other, and pair those.

Obviously this is all going to be speculation, but let’s see who on the Maple Leafs’ roster fits best with Tavares.

Tavares’ biggest strengths are his offence, where he was 28th in high danger chances last year, 42nd in scoring chances overall, and 18th in scoring chances on net. He’s no slouch in playmaking either, with the 63rd-most completed passes to the slot in the NHL last season on the 58th-most attempts. However, offence is just what’s obvious about him.

Going through Tavares’ individual data, there are very few important areas of the game where he doesn’t rank in the top-90 forwards in the NHL, with the only weaknesses being controlled exits (229th), scoring chances off the rush (111th), defensive zone loose puck recoveries (120th), and neutral zone loose puck recoveries (284th). On top of those metrics, it’s a little interesting that Tavares only received the 75th-most passes in the slot last season, and the 70th-most passes in the offensive zone overall at 5-on-5. The Maple Leafs have the playmaking ability to substantially improve those numbers.

Looking at those metrics, Tavares could use a winger who can recover pucks in the defensive and neutral zones, and create transition plays that end in rush chances.

The rumour right now is that Mitch Marner will get the first chance to play with him, but let’s break down the Leafs’ roster and see who fits best.

One thing that sticks out here is that Marner and Nylander are a cut above the rest, as if anyone needs me to tell them that, but both fit the needs of playing with Tavares pretty well.

Nylander is the better player in transition, despite Marner’s speed and puckhandling skill. That leads to more chances off the rush, which could help get Tavares more high-quality chances. Nylander’s also the superior passer overall, but Marner is feistier in his own zone and grabs more loose pucks.

Both Nylander and Marner are very strong in the neutral zone, though, and in fact they are first and second in neutral zone recoveries among Leafs forwards, so it’s natural that one of the two would fit with Tavares.

Zach Hyman looks like the worst fit, but based on Babcock’s love of the Matthews-Hyman pairing, it’s probably safe to assume they’ll stick together.

One wrinkle that isn’t accounted for here are the Leafs forwards who haven’t played in the NHL enough for us to get a good read on them, with the biggest one being Andreas Johnsson. He brings tenacity with and without the puck, and speed to burn, so he could theoretically be a great fit alongside Tavares on the left side.

Offensively I think Nylander is the better fit to get the most out of Tavares. But because the Leafs’ forwards in general are not great puck retrievers in the defensive zone, an area that’s a bit of a weakness for Tavares already, I think the current idea of running Marner out there with him on the right side makes the most sense.

Marner’s defensive game grew last season, and though he’s by no means a defensive juggernaut, he’s good in the right areas to complement Tavares. A trio of Johnsson and Marner centred by Tavares as a second line sounds pretty ridiculous, and we’re probably going to see it.

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