TORONTO – Way back in the summer of 2018, when free agents got paid and backyard barbecues didn’t require headcounts, the Toronto Maple Leafs filmed a secret video to help lure John Tavares home.
A 21-year-old Mitchell Marner was asked to buzz around a near-empty barn, flashing his stickwork and spin moves for the cameras. A custom-made sizzle reel of skill served as the cherry on top of the 77 million other reasons for Tavares to take the Leafs' pitch seriously.
This is the calibre of winger we’ll provide you with, John. Just imagine the possibilities.
It wasn’t so long after Tavares posted his infamous boyhood bedsheets pic that he, Marner and Zach Hyman were tearing up the league, turning that teaser video into a full-length feature film that rocked the box office in 2018-19.
Tavares erupted for a career-best 47 goals and 88 points. Marner a career-best 26 and 94. Hyman a career-best 21 and 41. Not only did they compose the Maple Leafs’ best offensive line at the time, but Hyman-Tavares-Marner was also the most — and, some nights, only — trio trusted to shut down the enemy’s best forwards.
Outside of Boston’s Brad Marchand–Patrice Bergeron–David Pastrnak, one would be hard-pressed to name a more dominant triumvirate in the East that season. A recurring debate on Toronto sports radio: Who’s really driving the line, Tavares or Marner?
Then 2019-20 happened.
A combination of injuries, role experimentation and a coaching change conspired to break up the band. Everything got chucked in the blender. Nothing tasted quite right.
Marner and Tavares saw their production dip from elite to excellent. Hyman rehabbed a torn ACL and ping-ponged between centremen, providing a boost wherever he landed. And Toronto’s other No. 1 pivot, Auston Matthews, began carving out a reputation as a two-way force.
So often we talk about the action of hockey as a series of moving parts, but what Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe has done this season, after months of poring over video, is completely dismantle that 2018-19 engine, repurpose the parts and rebuilt his top nine with the goal of achieving a more specialized and consistent performance throughout.
Tavares, Marner and Hyman — so dangerous as one tight unit just 20 months ago — are now standout drivers on three separate lines.
And Monday’s performance, a decisive 3-1 victory over the Winnipeg Jets, was a fine example of how this sucker can hum when all pistons are pumping.
Let’s start with the captain.
Tavares — my pick to have a serious bounce-back campaign — woke up Tuesday to see his name atop the NHL’s (extremely early) leaderboard in goals (three) and points (six).
Leading wingmen William Nylander and Jimmy Vesey, Tavares has been a silent beast through four games. In addition to working closely with Vesey behind the scenes to help the new Leaf adjust to the top six, Tavares ramped up his conditioning and has become a focal point of assistant coach Manny Malhotra’s new 1B power-play unit.
“He looks quicker to me than he did at any point last season,” Keefe said. “He has an extra step, whether that’s on the rush, or whether that's coming out of the corners in the offensive zone and attacking the net, or whether that comes back into our zone.”
For all the talk of the Leafs’ influx of leadership and splashy personalities, the understated Tavares has maintained a gold standard of positioning and dependability.
“His work ethic every day has been great. He’s come ready to play and being very competitive, every puck he’s out there against. I mean, that’s what you want out of your leaders. You want them to show and be an example for everyone else,” Marner said.
Even more interesting than Monday’s utter dominance of Tavares’s line, which out-attempted the Jets 13-1 at even-strength, was Keefe’s deployment. One hundred per cent of Tavares’s even-strength draws (all eight) were in the O-zone, meaning he and Nylander are being set up lovely for offensive success.
Charged with giving Alexander Kerfoot’s checking third line a boost of credibility and identity, Hyman has been the staff’s Swiss Army knife, providing a jolt of energy further down the lineup while getting tapped for critical shifts in the top six and contributing to both special teams.
On Monday, Hyman led all skaters with 10(!) shots on net despite starting a team-low 14.3 per cent of his 5-on-5 shifts in the offensive zone. He hasn’t had a poor night yet.
Keefe’s fresh disbursement of responsibility means separate but (so far) successful power-play group. It also means entrusting Matthews and Marner with more defensive responsibility and ice time. They appear ready for it in their fifth season.
Each has averaged more than 23 minutes per game in the early going here, and Marner responded from Friday’s dismal zero-shot performance in Ottawa with a pair of standout games.
Marner slammed the winner plus the empty-net insurance marker Monday, tallying five points over the past two games. Just as spicy was his response to Jets’ defenceman Neal Pionk’s attempt to run him during the final shot and Mark Scheifele’s words for Marner after the lamp illuminated:
“Who cares. We won the game,” Marner said. “That’s all I care about.”
Same goes for Keefe.
The aim is to win the game, and he’ll rearrange the pieces and sprinkle the trust as he sees fit.
Understanding this only works with Matthews taking a giant step, Kerfoot rebounding nicely and Nylander creating, the parts of the Leafs' old top line might now be greater than their sum.
Hyman-Tavares-Marner has been remixed, fresh for 2021, and it’s sounding pretty good upon first listen.