BOSTON — Steady on the rudder.
It’s one of the many go-to phrases Toronto Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock yanks out of his quiver from time to time. It’s a folksy motto you can envision in needlepoint or screaming from a bumper sticker on a pickup truck motoring somewhere between Manitoba and Alberta. One of those little sayings that pull double duty, serving a purpose in hockey and in life. (And really, come the second week of April, who among us knows where to draw that line anyway?)
No wonder Babcock wanted John Tavares to be his top-line centre.
Easily the most consistent, measured, reliable and even keel Toronto Maple Leaf in the Babcock era, steady on the rudder might as well be tattooed across Tavares’s chest. Granted, he doesn’t quite strike us as a big tat guy.
When Tavares wasn’t playing all 82 games and crushing personal bests in goals (47), points (88) and plus/minus (+19) in the 10th year of his NHL career but first as a member of the Leafs — a campaign which saw his longest goal slump snuffed at five games and longest point drought nipped at two — he could be seen attending his sixth all-star game and defending the people of San Jose’s passion as they booed him.
Or standing tall in the bright lights of Nassau Coliseum after sponging up all the building’s bitterness and answering for a brutal team performance to reporters as an Isles fan spotted his scrum and shouted more mean things, a snake throw’s distance.
Tavares absorbs all that plastic cobra venom the way he does the glowing praise, with another hardworking shift and composure that, at times, almost feels — unhuman.
The Leafs’ public relations staff was originally taken aback with Tavares willingness to make himself available to the media hordes day after day. Coaches were impressed with how quickly he picked up foreign systems. Younger teammates, as Auston Matthews noted this week, are taken by his knowledge of the game.
“He’s surpassed our expectations,” Toronto general manager Kyle Dubas said. “His play on the ice and production speaks for itself, but it’s the other stuff that’s going on here in the locker-room with our younger players that’s certainly been noted by me.”
But robots, hockey and otherwise, don’t have dreams to chase.
On the surface, Tavares’s Canada Day decision was about the logo patterned on a child’s bed sheets. But it was more about what Thursday night at TD Garden presents: puck drop on what the 28-year-old hopes will be a string of springs in which he has a shot at sport’s top prize.
“Since [I was] a kid, I’ve wanted to be one of those guys that can put the Stanley Cup over your head,” said Tavares. “You never know when possibly it could be your time.
“You have to take this as serious as any opportunity you’re ever gonna get.”
Few know the long-term toll losing can take on an individual who has poured his entire identity into a team sport.
For athletes whose talent actually matches their sky-high ambitions, they’ll chase it at all costs. (Which is partly why Edmonton and Buffalo are puddled with panic these days.)
Of Tavares’s 775 NHL appearances, a scant three per cent have been in the playoffs.
“He’s done some losing,” Babcock said. “He’s figured out that it’s not as much fun as winning.”
In nine seasons on Long Island, Tavares’s clubs only qualified for the dance thrice, played just 24 playoff games (during which he put up 22 points) and only won a single round. Tavares played double-OT hero in 2016 as the Islanders beat the Florida Panthers to advance to the second round for the first time in 22 years.
Even his 2014 Olympic gold medal is looked upon with a bittersweetness, considering he suffered a tournament-ending knee injury after just four games.
“But I missed being in the locker-room between periods or even skating warmup before the game, being in the battles on the ice. Those are things that are special. You want to have an impact out there,” he told me three years ago.
“I’d love a little redemption, to be part of that, to play in those games, those intense moments.”
And so it’s that desire to thrive on the grand stage that Dubas targeted in his summer pitch, teasing Tavares with a custom Mitch Marner sizzle reel, stressing Toronto’s centre depth and detailing a flourishing farm system that could stretch open the window of contention for the duration of his prime.
“This is what you play for, these opportunities, and the more you go through it, the more you’ve been around, you know how hard it is — and you appreciate it that much more,” said Tavares, three years removed from his last post-season taste.
“Make the most of it. Leave it all on the line.”
Like his low-nonsense coach, who cites him as the biggest difference between the Leafs’ playoff chances this year and last, Tavares views pressure as an opportunity for greatness.
Like his GM, he trusts the process, figuring all the serious work he’s invested in preparation will free him to rely on instincts when the action starts and he gets tasked with shutting down Patrice Bergeron, along with the most dynamic trio in hockey.
In temperament and technique, Tavares is built for April. He’s a grinder’s superstar who has improved his shutdown game. He thrives on cycle play, scores his goals within a Sher-Wood of the crease and is conditioned mentally for the long wear down of a best-of-seven series.
“The way I go about my daily business stays the same,” says Tavares, the dressing room’s metronome. “Patience is the key. You’re going to feel like there’s a lot of shifts where nothing is accomplished, but it’s a chess match.
“You’re almost thinking two, three steps ahead.”
As Leafs Nation frets about William Nylander’s aim, or Boston dumping everything to the right side or how Frederik Andersen looked in March, no one’s concerned about Tavares’s contribution.
“He knows how to score playoff goals,” Babcock said. “That’s how he scores anyway, by standing in the blue paint.”
A rudder steady in a typhoon.
“You see what he’s been able to do through the season already,” said teammate Travis Dermott. “If he ups his game at all for playoffs, I think it’ll be a crazy thing to see.
“We expect Johnny to be Johnny. And if he does just that, we’ll be more than happy.”