Maple Leafs missing John Tavares’ ‘conscience’ during uneasy stretch

NHL insider Chris Johnston joins Nikki Reyes to discuss the Maple Leafs play without captain John Tavares, most specifically, Mitch Marner, who’s having a tough time bouncing between lines.

TORONTO — You can set your watch to John Tavares.

Within an hour of touching down in St. John’s, N.L., for Toronto Maple Leafs training camp back in September, he could be found working out in an otherwise empty arena. On game nights, both at home and on the road, you’ll always see him arriving at the arena with a backpack full of the items he uses during elaborate warm-up and recovery routines. The newly minted Leafs captain even handles his media duties with a direct, predictable, even-keeled approach.

He is the living, breathing embodiment of The Process: Put your head down, do your work, ignore the noise and trust that everything will turn out for the best.

So it was no coincidence Mike Babcock mentioned “a conscience” among the things his group has missed most with Tavares out of the lineup these last two weeks.

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“What I mean by that is he does it right,” Babcock said Wednesday. “He’s been through all these things the other guys have been through and has figured out that he wants to do it right because he wants to win.”

Tavares is just what his team needs to emerge from its uneasy October. Not only will he help give the Leafs another ice-tilting line with dangerous scoring threats, his steadying influence could be of particular use for the choppy waters at hand.

Toronto has been either tied or ahead in the third period for six of its eight losses this season — including all four games its dropped since Tavares broke his right index finger on Oct. 16.

It’s no stretch to imagine that a 6-5-3 record would look much better right now had they shown a little more poise and discipline with the game on the line. Or played with a conscience, as it were.

“I think we haven’t really put a full 60 [minutes] together,” said Tavares. “I think we’ve had some really good spurts, we’ve been down a lot in games and we’ve fought back hard and we’ve stayed in it. We just, I think, at times have made mistakes at some tough points and then obviously don’t end up getting the result that we would like.”

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Tavares is eyeing a potential return to the lineup in Philadelphia on Saturday night — pending how well his finger holds up through a practice with increased contact beforehand. He skated between Trevor Moore and Mitch Marner in line rushes on Wednesday and said his range of motion has felt OK since suffering the injury when he was hit with a Morgan Rielly point shot.

What remains to be seen is if he’s built up enough strength to battle through game action with the help of some extra padding on the outside of his glove and new stitching inside designed to keep his fingers locked in place.

“I wouldn’t say it’s exactly normal,” said Tavares. “I have it protected pretty well, so shooting’s pretty good. I think a lot of the competitiveness [will be a challenge] — getting in tight, creating space, pushing off guys, being along the boards.

“Things like that, I think, are going to be kind of the final hurdles that I’ll have to feel comfortable with.”

Getting him back could be particularly helpful for Marner even though that duo struggled to rediscover last year’s magic immediately out of the gates. Marner is still looking for his first goal at 5-on-5 this season and has just four assists at that game state, keeping the Leafs from developing their potentially deadly 1-2 scoring punch along with the Andreas Johnsson-Auston Matthews-William Nylander line.

Marner has been skating with Alexander Kerfoot and Ilya Mikheyev the last couple games and saw some time beside Matthews after Tavares went down. He’d welcome a little stability.

“I’ve played with like six or seven different guys now,” said Marner. “It will be nice to try and get in a rhythm with actual linemates here for a little bit.”

When asked if Marner is starting to look more like the player he’s used to seeing, Babcock replied: “Well the Mitch I’m used to seeing played with [Zach Hyman] and Tavares, OK? That’s a little different program, right?”

The effectiveness of that line last season wasn’t just built on all of the offence it produced, but how well it handled difficult assignments. They were the ultimate safety blanket for a coach who could trust that they’d get the best of the opponent’s best players more often than not.

This year the Leafs have been burned by a who’s-who of stars during their losses — Alex Ovechkin, John Carlson, David Pastrnak, Brad Marchand and Brayden Point, among them.

Tavares is one of Toronto’s brightest stars and a player that looks even more valuable after getting the first glimpse of the Leafs without him. He believes some patience is in order to get things headed in a better direction here.

“Just continuing to stay with it, and knowing that it feels difficult right now and we’ve just got to continue to work on our habits and our game and keep trying to find another level and push each other,” said Tavares. “We’ve been in a lot of tight hockey games. Just staying with it and find a way to be on the right side of it.”

Put on the blinders and get to work. It’s what he does best.

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