How Maple Leafs can lean on centre depth to overcome Tavares injury hurdle

Maple Leafs captain John Tavares takes us through his broken finger injury from his perspective, never thought it was that bad, even the next day, but is confident the team will be fine without him.

This week the Toronto Maple Leafs announced that newly minted team captain John Tavares would miss at least two weeks with a broken finger, sustained in their game against the Washington Capitals.

Even if Tavares misses a bit more than that upon a re-evaluation of the injury following that prognosis, it’s likely to be a short-term hurdle for the Leafs to overcome. In all likelihood, the Leafs will be extremely cautious with Tavares here, since it’s early in the season, and his primary asset as a player is his goal scoring.

The Tavares injury puts some stress on a centre group that has more depth but less top-end talent than last season, with head coach Mike Babcock’s first attempted reformatting of the lines puts Alex Kerfoot and Ilya Mikheyev up on the second line with Mitch Marner.

In order to find out if that’s the best move, let’s first look at what Tavares brings to his line at 5-on-5 and see which of the Leafs’ centres fits in that slot the best. For this I’m going to use data from last season, because we want to see what Tavares brings overall, and compare it to what the replacement options are doing right now.

So keep in mind that for Tavares, we’re looking at 2018-19 data, while the others are 2019-20.

All of these statistics Tavares was either the best on the Leafs or second-best last season, aside from controlled entries where he was fourth. Replicating some of his success in these areas would go a long way to keeping that line ticking while he’s out.

Kerfoot has been playing centre so far this season, but he hasn’t been a full-time centre in his NHL career, so this is a scenario where the Leafs may miss Nazem Kadri a little bit. From a shooting perspective, Kerfoot is by far the worst direct replacement for Tavares of these three, though keep in mind that the sample size for Spezza is miniscule.

What Kerfoot does bring over the others is an ability to gain the offensive zone with control, and it’s clear from the construction of that line that Babcock is thinking about speed and transition by adding Mikheyev as well, while the pressure would be more on Marner to create the offence.

Throughout his short career, Kerfoot has been a very good playmaker, but has struggled to flex those muscles this season as a centre, so perhaps playing with Marner who is one of the league’s best playmaking wingers will take some of that stress off of him and help him relax a bit, but that’s just hypothetical.

In limited action, Spezza has had some stellar offensive numbers with the Leafs, hanging out near the net in the offensive zone just like Tavares likes to, putting shots on net from in tight, finding teammates with deft passes, winning puck battles at a surprisingly high rate, and recovering rebounds like nobody’s business.

Whether Spezza can keep that up with tougher competition over a longer period is very much in doubt, but for a short stretch he may prove himself to be a decent option if Kerfoot struggles.

Freddy Gauthier meanwhile has been having a stellar start to the year offensively, leading the group in scoring chances and connecting on an above-average number of passes to the slot. Gauthier is a decent net-front presence and battles hard down low, but in transition he’s not a very good fit with Marner, which kind of rules him out.

The offensive zone is just one part of the game though, how are these players faring overall? We know Tavares is a high-end play driver, so let’s compare apples to apples this time and look at where these guys stand up to him in on-ice differentials.

Ol’ small sample size Spezza is throwing absolutely everything off here in the graph and making it tough to see, but look at how crazy dominant he’s been in his extremely limited usage. Pretty impressive stuff even if it can’t continue at that level.

Tavares has only been even on high-danger chances this season after being at about 54 per cent last season, and the Leafs have been outplayed from a playmaking perspective when that line is on the ice.

Tavares’ most likely replacement in Kerfoot has been strong on defence in limiting passes, something he was excellent at last season, but looks horrid in high-danger scoring chances from the inner slot. Looks are a bit deceiving there though.

The differential is horrible, but Kerfoot has been slightly above team average defensively, it’s just that his line hasn’t shot much from the inner slot at all. That’s a big change in playing style from what Tavares usually brings, but Kerfoot’s line has made up for it with dominance from the high slot, while tending to not give up much defensively.

Gauthier has been close to even on all fronts, which is good news for the Leafs’ depth.

Obviously, there’s no way to internally replace someone like Tavares, so it’s a good thing he’s only out short-term, but the Leafs are better placed to weather this than they have been in recent years.

On the top end, there’s no doubt that Nazem Kadri would have been a better pound-for-pound replacement for Tavares than any of these candidates, but Gauthier’s strong start and Spezza’s addition to the team allows the Leafs to rely on all four lines over this injury.

Another ripple in here is that moving Mikheyev up to the Marner line allows Kasperi Kapanen to go back to his natural position on the right wing, which it looks like he needs. Kapanen has struggled mightily this season, so if he can get back to what’s expected of him, it helps insulate that third line.

The fourth line is already strong with centre duties split between Gauthier and Nick Shore, so there isn’t much to worry about there either.

The Leafs aren’t as good without Tavares, but they aren’t bad either.

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