Half a decade into a franchise-altering contract with his hometown club, John Tavares has become something of a controversial figure in blue and white.
Canvas the Toronto Maple Leafs faithful month-to-month, and you could get a different answer each time on whether the captain’s lived up to the hype, whether he’s worth his price tag in 2023, or whether the 32-year-old’s got little left to give eight years removed from his spin as a Hart Trophy finalist.
But Sunday night, in the dog days of the home stretch of Toronto’s season — the club’s playoff situation all but sealed, these last games now a test of habits, of consistency — No. 91 showed every bit of his value to this team.
Sure, it wasn’t the toughest game his Maple Leafs have had to wade through, their hosts — the 18th-ranked Nashville Predators — coming off a 7-2 shellacking from Seattle a night prior. Still, it was the type of game playoff-bound teams seem to fumble often: a desperate opponent with nothing to lose, the back half of a back-to-back, the final test on a road trip that’s been decent enough already.
With a little bit of everything — three points to his name, a bit of grit, some mental fortitude — Tavares ensured his club did what they needed to do, and left town with the result expected of them.
“I’m just trying to focus on playing well,” Tavares told the media in Nashville once the win was in the bag. “Executing through all three zones, and being connected there. I know I talk about that a lot, but that’s really where my focus is. And obviously I trust my ability and my instincts to make plays and capitalize on my opportunities.
“I’m just trying to go out there and execute on each and every shift.”
It was the captain’s first goal that might’ve been the most important in this one, after a slow start had Nashville testing young Joseph Woll early.
Five minutes into the opening frame, Toronto had yet to register a single shot on net, while their opponent’s total was flipping into double digits on the video board hovering above. By the first intermission, though, it was the Leafs who’d drawn first blood, Tavares posting up at the netfront on the power play and capitalizing off a quick-trigger finish to a clockwork tic-tac-toe sequence with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner.
A minute into the second period, Tavares was out there setting the tone for his club again.
This time, he played the role of facilitator, taking a heads-up stretch pass from Justin Holl, spinning in the neutral zone and coming up with a feathery dish to Alex Kerfoot — who made good on his top-six opportunity, collecting Tavares’ setup and whipping the puck past Kevin Lankinen to extend the lead. Toronto kept the pressure on, doubling the Preds in shots through that middle frame, cruising to the second intermission with a steady 2-0.
Tavares was forced into that intermission early after taking a shot off the hand — prompting a walk down the tunnel that had Leafs Nation holding its collective breath, especially as the club’s other stoic centreman, Ryan O’Reilly, remains sidelined with a broken finger. But the captain made it back to the bench to start the third.
Then came the wobble.
After some early chances traded by both clubs to start the final frame, Tavares found himself stranded near the offensive blue line, Nashville’s Kiefer Sherwood with just enough space to chip the puck by the Leafs captain and prepare to fly up ice on an odd-man rush. Rolling the dice, Tavares planted and threw his weight into the Predators winger, taking the interference call to stifle the potential chance.
Nashville broke up Woll’s shutout bid anyways, Tyson Barrie haunting his old club with a point shot on the ensuing power play that found its way into the Leafs’ net via a Cody Glass deflection.
With Toronto’s lead cut to one, the game at risk of becoming yet another in a slew of nights that have seen this team play down to its opposition, Tavares redeemed himself, and pulled his club back, tallying again to restore Toronto’s two-goal cushion.
His second of the night came right where his first did, where few in the game are more dangerous — planted directly in front of the opposing netminder. Tavares took a Morgan Rielly point shot off the body, let it fall to the ice, and then spun and swept it past Lankinen.
Nashville mounted one last attempted rally, Barrie once again burning his old club with a point shot that deflected off Holl and in, but Toronto held steady to close out their road trip with a ‘W.’
“I think overall we carried a lot of the play in the third period,” Tavares told Sportsnet’s Shawn McKenzie after the final buzzer had sounded. “They get one on the power play to make it tight, and anything can happen. I thought our power play responded really well, and overall we just played with the puck a lot in their half of the ice, and behind their goal line. Really didn’t let them generate a whole lot.
“It’s been a lot of hockey here over the last couple weeks … just good composure, I think, throughout our game, throughout the night.”
Judge him only by his price tag, by an $11-million cap hit that ranks among the heftiest in the league, and maybe there’s reason to wonder how No. 91 fits into this team’s future. But in the present, in the here and now, for this team that’s desperate to find post-season progress in 2023, there’s no doubting Tavares remains a crucial cog in Toronto’s machine.
That much seems clear on nights like these, when these Leafs crave a leader who’s focused on the bigger picture.
“I think there’s a lot of good things building,” Tavares told McKenzie, reflecting on where his club’s game is at as the all-important playoffs loom. “We know the details that we’ve got to play with each and every shift. Last night’s a good example of how just a little breakdown opens the door.
“I think the way we’re starting to play through the neutral zone, defending through the middle of the ice and connecting our game more consistently, some good things have been building here.”