NEWARK, N.J. — The last time the Toronto Maple Leafs had a player scoring like this it was the high-flying early ’90s and everything seemed possible for Doug Gilmour, Wendel Clark and Co.
That it’s John Tavares helping make believers out of Leafs Nation again is a major coup for an organization which set aside big bucks and significant cap space to bring him home over the summer.
Tavares had already proven himself as one of the better goal-scorers of his generation during nine seasons in Long Island. But after half a year in Toronto, where he’s scored 29 times in 43 games, he’s building a case to have this considered one of the best seasons by a free-agent signing in NHL history.
“He’s done nothing but impress me,” defenceman Travis Dermott said after Thursday’s 4-2 win over New Jersey.
The impact Tavares has on the organization runs much deeper than goals, but the Leafs aren’t paying him $11 million per season for intangibles. That’s why his production has been so important during a 28-13-2 start — the NHL’s second-best record by percentage of points earned.
Against the Devils, Tavares scored two more times and now trails only Washington’s Alex Ovechkin in that department league-wide. He’d never potted more than 38 in nine seasons as a member of the Islanders and is now on pace for 55.
What stands out is that he’s producing more shots on goal than ever before, averaging 3.79 per game after putting six more on Devils goalie Keith Kinkaid.
“I just try to go out there and be as best prepared, be as consistent as I can be,” said Tavares. “You know, try to be just hard to defend. Find different ways to produce, not just in certain situations, whether it’s around the net, off the cycle, on the rush, on the power play.
“I’m obviously playing with some pretty good players throughout the lineup, so I’m just trying to be ready for those opportunities and capitalize and just try to play my game. I just want to keep it going.”
He and linemate Mitch Marner found instant offensive chemistry this season, and they’ve benefitted from the grind-it-out style of left-winger Zach Hyman. He returned Thursday after an eight-game absence with an ankle injury and was on the ice for all four goals scored by the Leafs.
“It just goes to show you need people to win the puck back and he was able to do that for us,” said Leafs coach Mike Babcock.
Tavares scored both his goals from an area close to the net, collecting a Jake Gardiner rebound and backhanding it home at 7:21 before finishing off a lovely passing sequence from Morgan Rielly and Marner at 19:53.
They were Nos. 300 and 301 on his career, making the No. 1 overall pick from 2009 the first in his draft class to reach that milestone.
By a wide margin.
He’s now at five more goals than his previous best mark through 43 games of a season and the only Leafs player in the last 31 years with this many since Dave Andreychuk had 31 in 1994. Heady stuff.
Even if you were to go back to the giddy afternoon of July 1, when Tavares chose to sign with the Leafs over five other finalists, you probably wouldn’t have pencilled him in for this kind of roaring start.
“I wouldn’t [have] put a guess on it,” said defenceman Ron Hainsey. “When it happened I was just excited that we had him on the team. How many goals he would or wouldn’t score [didn’t matter], I knew we were getting a centreman whose a great player.
“Obviously he’s had a heck of a start here through 43.”
When you couple it with his steady demeanour off the ice — teammates have described him as the most consummate professional they’ve ever shared a dressing room with — you start to understand why Toronto has been able to withstand an Auston Matthews shoulder injury, the William Nylander contract standoff and subsequent dry spell, and more recently, the groin issue that’s sidelined No. 1 goaltender Frederik Andersen.
Steady like a metronome, Tavares has been there to keep things beating in rhythm.
“He’s a guy that everyone wants to play better when you’re on the ice with him,” said Dermott. “He’ll get you the puck if you’re open. He’ll battle for you and for the whole team down low. He’s a guy that makes you definitely want to work harder for your teammates.”
And he’s had a huge hand in adding numbers to the win column.
Perhaps most encouraging is the fact his production doesn’t seem to be unattainably high — he’s on pace for a career-best 95 points — and he’s remained remarkably even-keel despite all of the early achievement in Toronto.
Tavares is only the seventh player drafted after 2005 to hit 300 goals, following Sidney Crosby, Steven Stamkos, Phil Kessel, Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Anze Kopitar. He’s keeping pretty good company.
“It’s always that much more satisfying when it contributes in a big win, especially bouncing back after [a 4-0 loss to Nashville] the other night,” said Tavares. “I think a credit to a lot of guys I’ve played with over my career, obviously a big part of helping me be successful.
“I don’t want to stop there.”