TORONTO – By the calmness he projects and the numbers he produces, you’d never guess John Tavares is still figuring out how things work in Leafland.
The trigger points on the Toronto penalty kill, the nuances of the power play, the ticks of his teammates’ personalities, coach Mike Babcock’s demands: Tavares is a quick study, but these are early days, filled with talk of lessons and mistakes and chemistry building.
“I don’t think it’ll take him too long. Babs is a big fan of doing the same drills over and over,” partner Mitch Marner said. “He drills it in your head.”
Getting out of town and heading away with the boys to Niagara Falls at the beginning of training camp did much to break the ice. After nine years as the opposition, those team dinners and afternoons off pushed the process of knowing the people before the players.
“It’s like Patty [Marleau] last year. Everyone said he was really quiet, but we’ve been talking a lot,” Marner said. “He’s a lot of fun to be around. It’s exciting seeing what we have here.”
Friday’s casual-looking 5-3 exhibition victory over Buffalo reinforced that what Toronto has is a squad so offensively potent that it can win ugly and outscore its gaffes.
As a GTA kid, before he’d drift to sleep in those legendary logo’d bedsheets, Tavares recalls staying up to watch his favourite Maple Leafs in this very building, the Battle of Ontario playoff tilts sticking out in particular.
“Crazy to think I’m in it now,” Tavares said Friday, before pulling on a blue and white sweater inside Scotiabank Arena’s home dressing room for the first time.
“You really got that sense of why it’s special to be a Maple Leaf, why the past and the history of the team is so important to the club and everyone involved — but also the city of Toronto and all the fans.”
More than 18,000 of them gathered on summer’s sticky last night, antsy to squeeze as much meaning as possible out of a sloppy pre-season game that’ll never register anywhere except the memory banks.
Babcock, a coach with a firm sense of occasion, sent Tavares out for opening puck drop and the loudest reception of all the introductions.
“Quite the atmosphere for a pre-season game,” Tavares figured. “It didn’t look like many empty seats tonight.”
Funny thing is, Tavares owned this building long before the Maple Leafs owned him.
Of all the road rinks he’d tore up during all those winters on Long Island, Tavares had only scored more points in Carolina (22) than in his own hometown (20).
Tavares’s lifetime production rate at Scotiabank Arena, his comfy new digs, is a sparkling 1.25 points per game — and his 200-foot show versus Buffalo’s B squad reminded us why.
Aspiring NHL goaltenders Garret Sparks and Linus Ullmark were feasted upon early, and three pucks went in the first 71 seconds of a seesaw affair heavy on turnovers.
Tavares later claimed ownership of the first Sabres strike but repented in deed by finishing off a smooth transition by Marner and defence prospect Timothy Liligren. The score read 3-1 Leafs before the four-minute mark of the first period.
“[Marner’s] ability to transition and get up the ice is extremely impressive,” Tavares said. “It makes the game a lot easier for me.”
The Leafs eased on the gas, let the Sabres creep within a goal, and committed a series of minor penalties that boosted the ice time of new Tavares-Marner PK duo, successful in each of their kills.
“That was the lowest level we have played at this year, turning the puck over like crazy,” Babcock summarized. “Didn’t play as good or as hard as we should have.”
The mid-game departure of Tavares’s left winger, Zach Hyman, now day-to-day with a bone bruise added to the chaos. But the centreman was impressed when bubble guy Josh Leivo slid up the lineup.
“Josh can skate, he’s got great instincts and a tremendous shot, so we had some opportunities,” Tavares said. “We’ve got so much depth and so much creativity, guys can move up and down the lineup and make an impact.”
When the going gets tough, the coach leans on the players he trusts. So it should be no shock that Tavares was depended upon to take critical defensive-zone face-offs when Buffalo pulled Ullmark in favour of an extra attacker.
“I take a lot of pride when the coaching staff gives you that responsibility,” Tavares said. “I’ve realized over my career, it’s a lot easier on yourself when you can start with it rather than chase it.”
Number 91 won the draw and iced his first unofficial game in his official new stomping grounds with an empty-netter, giving him four goals and five points in two appearances and the hype-wagon Leafs a perfect 3-0 record in exhibition.
His busy Friday involved topping all players in shots (five), takeaways (four), face-off wins (15), and nationally televised interviews (four).
Not bad for a guy still figuring things out.
“Definitely a much quicker game than the first one the majority of us played in Lucan, and the crowd was a big a part of that,” Tavares said.
“It’s been fun getting things started, but we know we haven’t proved anything yet.”