Why Maple Leafs’ John Tavares is accepting a reduced offensive role

Toronto Maple Leafs' John Tavares skates off the ice as the New York Islanders celebrate their win in NHL hockey action in Toronto on Monday, February 5, 2024. (Frank Gunn/CP Photo)

TORONTO — Better never means better for everyone. It always means worse for some.

This memorable line, pulled from The Handmaid’s Tale, can be well applied to team sports and the miniature locker-room hierarchies in constant flux.

So it is, that for the Toronto Maple Leafs to get better — and, make no mistake, a seven-game win streak, their longest in 20 years, means they’re better — and for some of its previously misplaced parts to find a niche, someone has had to accept a little less.

That someone is captain John Tavares, who amid all the happy vibes, has had his ice time and offensive role sliced and dispersed.

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Tavares, currently the Leafs’ third-line centre and second-unit power-play weapon, is taking one for the team. Though not by choice.

“I don’t know if I would say I asked him, first of all,” coach Sheldon Keefe clarified. “It was more just talking him through it and explaining why I thought the timing was right for it, both in terms of how it affects the team and how it impacts the others who have been playing well and had built some positive momentum over the last little bit. The times when John missed two of the three games gave us some different looks. We wanted to continue to build on it.”

NHL players, particularly star NHL players, are generally of the belief that they shouldn’t lose their spot to injury.

And yet when Tavares sat two of the first three wins of Toronto’s hot streak (the first to illness, the second to an undisclosed minor ailment), the previously middling Max Domi and Tyler Bertuzzi shined as 2C and on PP1, respectively.

Two of GM Brad Treliving’s most important and expensive recruits found their feet and upped their confidence.

Tavares was told to take a small step back in terms of the prime offensive minutes, drive a line centring the first-year NHL wingers Nick Robertson and Bobby McMann on the third unit and give this refreshingly balanced look some run.

Even with Tavares benefitting from some lighter matchups and snapping a couple of even-strength goals as a 3C, a perceived demotion can be challenging for any athlete.

“You’d be surprised,” says Vegas Golden Knights coach Bruce Cassidy. “Just writing the lines on the board, and all of sudden: ‘Who’s on the third?’ You know what I mean? It’s a mindset. ‘Well, wait a minute, I’m on the third line. I’m not…'”

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Cassidy is a fan of sprinkling elite talent, if you have it, across the bench. He realizes, for forwards, there is still a stigma attached to the top sixbottom six divide because of hockey’s ingrained terminology.

“Maybe people should start calling it a top nine, and it takes some of that away — because that’s what a lot of good teams have now. It used to be top six, third line a matchup [group], and then fourth line [for] energy, toughness,” Cassidy explains.

“Now, there’s a lot of teams that could roll three lines and should [call it] a top nine and then kind of that grittier line. But Toronto has the ability to do it, with their talent. So do we, when we’re healthy. I would never call William Karlsson a third-line centre in this league, but he’s a luxury to play against the other teams’ third-line centre.”

While Keefe isn’t overwhelmed by the possession numbers of his new middle six, which splits Tavares from the scorching William Nylander, the Leafs have a plus-21 goal differential over this win streak, their best seven-game stretch since 1993.

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Toronto rolls into Tuesday’s rematch against the defending champs with No. 1 leaguewide in goals per game (3.68) and power-play efficiency (29.3 per cent). Something is working.

“You just want to do what you can to help the team, and obviously [Keefe] felt [the switch] was necessary to do,” Tavares says. “You control what you can control and be ready to play every time your name’s called to go over the boards and continue to push to get better.

“The goal is to go out there and do something really special. So, just try to do whatever you can to help contribute towards that.”

To his credit, Keefe has bumped Tavares up with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner for some key offensive-zone draws, trying to get the leader some extra shifts.

“I don’t think it has been a perfect experiment so far, but we have been getting good results in terms of the team winning,” Keefe says. “Guys have been producing and feeling good. I still feel there is a way to go for each of those lines to develop chemistry. For the most part, both lines have been getting out-chanced when they are out there.”

In Keefe’s past experiments with spreading offence, Nylander was the one moved to the third line. Now, Tavares, who averaged 18:22 through his first 51 games has been averaging 15:55 over the past four. 

Tavares’s lost minutes are going to secondary scorers, who are delivering with their increased workload.

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“I like that thinking myself. Players have to be on board,” Cassidy says. “People forget sometimes that the individual has to be willing to maybe sacrifice for the good of the team when you do that, right? The individual has to be willing to maybe sacrifice for the good of the team. Maybe your individual numbers aren’t as good, but there’s better balance. I think it’s going to help Toronto, and it looks like it has recently. But we’ll see over time.

“We were able to do it last year, and I think it can get to teams. Eventually, you’ll get, I don’t know if mismatch is the right word, but you should get an advantage if you’re able to consistently do it, and that helped us a lot late in the year and in the playoffs.”

A wise hockey man once said that what’s true in the NHL today is not necessarily true tomorrow.

Remember, Tavares led all Leafs with 18 power-play goals last season. That Tavares has been removed from the hockey’s hottest power-play unit doesn’t mean the captain won’t return if it hits a rut.

To that end, Tavares poured in extra effort at Monday’s practice and was one of the final Leafs to leave the ice. One guesses he’s not ecstatic to be taking a reduced role, but he’s not sulking over it.

“The power play is a big one for him,” Keefe recognizes. “He had been having so much success there with us… but he is focused on one thing. He has his priorities straight and knows what is important. With where he is in his career and where we are as a team, he gets it. He has handled it tremendously.

“John is all business. He gets it. He is focused on one thing, which is helping our team win in the end. He is on board with anything that can help with that. He has handled it terrifically since then in terms of his play, his demeanour, and not having it affect his role as a leader and a captain.”

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