Leafs load up top power-play unit with Tavares and Matthews

John Tavares is embracing his new role "around the net" on the power-play, and his Maple Leafs teammates are also completely on board, knowing the capabilities.

TORONTO — It was an answer that threw Mike Babcock for a loop.

With the Maple Leafs putting on the full-court press in pursuit of John Tavares this summer, the star centre was asked by Toronto’s head coach where he would prefer to set up on the club’s already potent power play.

"He said (in front of the net)," Babcock recalled Thursday. "That’s surprised me, to be honest."

The plan to that point was going to see Auston Matthews promoted to the No. 1 unit, taking up the position at the lip of the crease left vacant by James van Riemsdyk‘s departure, with Tavares occupying Tyler Bozak‘s old spot along the boards.

The altered blueprint became a reality when Tavares joined the Leafs in free agency, agreeing to a massive seven-year, US$77-million contract on July 1. He will begin the season in front on the 1-3-1 power play, as envisioned, with Matthews and Mitch Marner on either side, Nazem Kadri patrolling the middle and Morgan Rielly at the point.

"That looks like a pretty good group to me," Kadri said with a smile.

Tavares spent time around the net and in the high slot on the man advantage last season in his final year with the New York Islanders, registering 30 points on the power play, but added he’s never been assigned the so-called "net-front" role as will be the case in Toronto.

"I’ve done a lot of good work around the net," said Tavares, who turned 28 on Thursday. "It’s just getting comfortable with the guys you’re playing with and their habits.

"(Standing) in front … it’s definitely an adjustment, but I’d like to think I can make it."

Toronto’s power play has ranked second in the NHL the past two seasons, including a 25-per-cent success rate in 2017-18.

Kadri scored 12 of his 32 goals on the man advantage last year, while van Riemsdyk, who left Toronto for Philadelphia as a free agent, put up 11 of his 36 from the spot Tavares will now man.

"He’s just got great vision, great hockey sense," Kadri said of the characteristics Tavares brings down low. "He knows when to shoot and he knows when to pass. He gave me a couple nice looks out there today.

"I’m looking forward to what he can bring."

The unofficial quarterback of the power play, Marner had a team-high 27 points — including 19 assists — on the man advantage last season. He’s equally excited to see the Tavares dynamic in action.

"He’s very good around the net, he can get the puck up quick," Marner said. "He’s very good at seeing the scenario he gets put in, seeing the open ice (and) seeing if he can take it or not.

"He can also make great plays from that spot."

Matthews, meanwhile, scored just five of his 34 goals on the man advantage in 2017-18, playing almost exclusively on the second unit.

He let it slip Monday he would be pushed up to the top unit to start this season, even though Tavares, Marner, Kadri and Rielly have been working together as part of a separate group in training camp.

"A lot of good players," Matthews said Thursday. "We’ve got plenty around our lineup, but when you get a lot of top guys on one unit, it makes for some pretty creative plays hopefully."

He added there’s no worry about not having enough puck to go around with all that talent on the ice at once.

"A lot of teams typically do that — Washington, Pittsburgh," Matthews said. "They’ve got that one unit with their top guys. We’re fortunate we’ve got a lot of top guys, so even that second unit looks pretty stacked on paper as well."

Toronto hopes to get the first unit together in time for its fifth pre-season game against Montreal at home on Monday.

Kadri cautioned it could take a little while before the power-play groups are completely comfortable, especially on entries into the offensive zone, a job that often fell to Bozak, who is now in St. Louis.

"That’s where a lot of power plays struggle, just being able to get in the zone and get organized and get set up," he said. "That’s something we’ve got to focus on."

At the same time, Kadri can’t wait to see what comes next.

"We have shooters on the flanks, we have a shooter down low, we have a shooter in the middle," he said. "Realistically, anything can happen.

"It’s going to be pretty dynamic."

The NHL’s other 30 teams have been duly warned.

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