Maple Leafs Notebook: Pressure on Tavares to produce after ‘the message was sent’

Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe talks about forward Matthew Knies and the performances he’s been giving on the top line which has led to Keefe being impressed with how he’s adjusting to the NHL.

EDMONTON — John Tavares has hit a midseason dip, and it’s not flying under his coach’s radar.

The captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs saw just three shifts in the third period of Saturday’s fast, tight contest against the mighty Colorado Avalanche, then got demoted to third-line centre status — away from star wings William Nylander and Mitch Marner — for Sunday’s loss to the Detroit Red Wings.

“I think the message was sent,” coach Sheldon Keefe said curtly Sunday. “John knows it wasn’t his best [Saturday] night.”

You’ll have to excuse him, but Tavares has not been at his best for a week — not unlike some of his teammates, to be fair. And elevating against the star-studded Oilers on Tuesday night in Edmonton is both an opportunity and a heckuva test to bust out of his doldrums.

The centreman is dash-5 over his past three games and has been held off the scoreboard for four straight, his least productive stretch of the season.

Over his past five games, Tavares has been held to one shot or less in four of them. And while his ice time has held steady over 18 minutes through the first three months of 2023-24, he is averaging just 16:54 in January.

“Sometimes maybe pucks are bouncing your way or going in at the rate you’d like,” Tavares said Tuesday morning, back skating with Nylander. “Big picture, there’s a lot of good things to my game. If you do have an off night, just refocusing and getting back [to] what’s brought you success. Continue to be relied upon in all areas of the game and influence the game and the right way for our group.”

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As for Keefe’s rare mini benching of the captain Saturday, Tavares downplayed that, too, with his typical steady demeanour.

“When you’re in the moment in a game, you’re just trying to be ready for that next opportunity and that next shift and going out there and executing. So trying to put whatever’s happened in the game behind you and just being ready to go out there and do what’s needed for when your name is called upon,” Tavares said.

“In a situation like that, you’re also trying to be external as well and encouraging your teammates and being supportive.”

Affected by this slump, Tavares is on pace for 24 goals and 68 points this season — his lowest totals since the pandemic-shortened 2019-20 season.

Hot vs. Cold

The Oilers return home scorching, riding a franchise-record, 10-game win streak, something Connor McDavid says he was surprised to learn the high-flying ’80s version of this franchise never accomplished.

Their visitors are in a funk, scrambling lines amidst a three-game skid in which they blew leads and salvaged only one loser point.

Not unlike Saturday’s superstar-loaded affair against the Avalanche, this is a marquee match of high-end offensive talent.

Toronto’s coach hopes his top-paid players learned something from getting outplayed by Colorado’s. A chance to flip the daily narrative.

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“We’re going to have to be at our best in these situations,” Keefe said. “In the past, we have been.”

Adds McDavid: “What do they got, like, four or five guys going to the All-Star Game? They got lots of talent over there, and they’re always a tough match.”

Matthews won’t lean into the hype that these twice-a-year Oilers-Leafs tilts are a chance for some of the best hockey players in the world to compare individual skill.

“They’re playing very well right now, and we’re trying to get back on track as a team,” Matthews says. “So, that’s really the main focus.”

One-Timers: Joseph Woll (high ankle sprain) is on the four-game road trip. The goalie won’t play and is not expected to participate in team practices. He gets to continue his solo rehab work with goalie coach Curtis Sanford and spend time with his teammates. “Just means he’s one step further,” Keefe says…. Pontus Hölmberg — four points and a plus-5 rating over his past five games — gets top-line treatment alongside a reunited Auston Matthews and Marner, while Tyler Bertuzzi takes a step down to the third line…. Mark Giordano returns to the lineup…. Nick Robertson, Ryan Reaves, William Lagesson, and Conor Timmins will be healthy scratches…. Martin Jones versus Stuart Skinner is the goalie matchup.

Maple Leafs’ projected lines in Edmonton

Hölmberg – Matthews – Marner

Knies – Tavares – Nylander

Bertuzzi – Domi – Järnkrok

McMann – Kämpf – Gregor

Rielly – Brodie

Benoit – McCabe

Giordano – Liljegren

Jones starts

Samsonov

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