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John Tavares Demoted – Can He Still Be Toronto’s Captain?

John Tavares Toronto

Scott Logush

Editor-in-Chief

For what is likely the first time in his life, John Tavares is no longer the guy. The regression has hit, and Tavares now finds himself sporting the C on his jersey on the third line as Max Domi has jumped past him to share a line with William Nylander and Tyler Bertuzzi. Tavares has been in a slump recently this season, as year six of the seven-year deal he inked with Toronto has shown to be the downturn and where regression hit him the hardest. It all started with him being taken off the first powerplay unit on a Family Day (or President’s Day) afternoon clash against the St. Louis Blues and has now solidified itself with him being moved down to the third line. The regression is not just on the stat sheet, but physically as well.

Throughout his career, Tavares has been about a point-per-game player. He has been able to bank on getting powerplay time and consistently 18-22 minutes of ice time per game since he came into the league in 2009 with the New York Islanders. The Monday afternoon clash against the St. Louis Blues saw Tavares only receive 29 seconds of powerplay time, while his total time on ice of 16:08 was much closer to Tyler Bertuzzi’s 15:36 and David Kampf’s 14:40 than 18:35, 19:34, and 21:40 that Nylander, Matthews, and Marner played respectively. Now, as he ages into the backend of his career, can he still be the captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs?

The Tavares third line experiment went into full effect when the Toronto Maple Leafs traveled to Mullet Arena to take on the Arizona Coyotes and Tavares not only spent the morning skate on a third line with Nick Robertson and Bobby McMann, but when the official lines were went out before the game and confirmed Tavares’ new role. I will say, pay attention to ice time more than just the line matchups. We still saw Tavares in the circle with Nylander on the wing. In Toronto’s 6-3 win, Tavares saw 17:05 of ice time, the fourth most of all Toronto forwards, with 4:52 coming on the power play, the third most of all Toronto forwards. Toronto did have five opportunities, including a double minor, while capitalizing on two of them so there was plenty of ice time to be had. Tavares scored his first goal since Toronto’s 5-4 win against the Dallas Stars on February 7th, and it was his first even-strength goal since December 23rd against the Columbas Blue Jackets. So while optically it looks like a strong demotion, Tavares is still getting his minutes and got his first points in two weeks.

Then came the showdown against the defending Stanley Cup Champions Vegas Golden Knights, and it was an absolute beatdown from beginning to end. The Toronto Maple Leafs have been playing their best version of hockey with the team trying to transition Tavares into more of a checking forward and not having him rely on point production to win, and it’s working incredibly well. During the absolute beatdown, Tavares saw his time on ice fall to 14:38, 1:51 of power play time, good for sixth on the team among forwards that night and behind players like Matthews, Marner, and Nylander while also seeing Tyler Bertuzzi and Matthew Knies hover around 16 minutes of ice time. Toronto has shifted to a true powerplay rotation. Instead of stacking Matthews, Marner, Nylander, Tavares, and Rielly for the full two minutes, Domi, Bertuzzi, McMann, and Robertson are getting some burn, which has helped lead the charge over the past six games. Tavares finished with a goal in the first period, with Robertson and McMann getting credit for the assists. So far, the experience of Tavares leading a strong third line has worked incredibly well. Toronto has been playing complete hockey, shutting down opponents while playing with okay goaltending, and lighting up the scoreboard. Tavares has three points, two even strength, and is +2 in two games since moving down. It is a small sample size, but encouraging nonetheless.

Now, can Tavares realistically continue being the captain as his role diminishes? Tavares has been good with the media, the typical “adult in the room” type of person. But if he fades outside of the top six, I doubt he can continue to carry the C especially when Morgan Rielly fits that same description and has had his on-ice play surpass the quality of Tavares’. Rielly has Toronto’s best defenseman, is the longest-tenured Leaf, and I feel was grossly overlooked when the conversation for team captain. He has the maturity, he has the tenure with the team, and he certainly has the playing ability to justify it. The captain does not always have to be a team’s best player, but Rielly is more than deserving of wearing the C on his sweater and he should get a look for it next season even with Tavares still under contract. The Toronto Maple Leafs take on the Colorado Avalanche tonight, and with Tavares working so well with the third line, can they keep the momentum going?

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