The Toronto Maple Leafs will be under all sorts of pressure this coming NHL season – pressure to make the playoffs; pressure to do some damage in the playoffs; pressure to keep angsty Leafs’ fans from breaking out in hives. Certainly, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander, their core of young stars, will also feel the heat as individuals if things don’t go their way.
However, the guy who isn’t receiving as much attention is also someone whose individual and team contributions will matter a great deal: we’re talking about captain John Tavares, whose awful injury against the Montreal Canadiens in the first round of the 2021 post-season may have been the catalyst for Toronto’s brutal collapse and series loss. He’s recovered and healthy now, and the Leafs need his talents more than ever.
This is not to suggest Tavares was at fault in any way for the way last season played out for the Leafs. His injury was unavoidable. His play when he was healthy – he had 50 points in 56 regular-season games, basically playing at his normal point-per-game pace – was crucial in Toronto winning the now-defunct North division. He was a quiet, lead-by-example force in the dressing room. And after he suffered a concussion in Game One of the Buds’ series against the Habs, his absence was notable, his skills irreplaceable.
And now, with the Leafs back in a division with heavyweights Tampa Bay, Florida, and Boston, Toronto will be looking to get more from the 31-year-old Tavares. He’s signed for three more seasons after this coming year, at a salary cap hit of $11 million per year. And with those big dollars come high expectations for him. He’ll be the Leafs’ second-line center, and to start the year, at least, he’ll likely be on a line with newcomer Nick Ritchie and the underachieving Ilya Mikheyev, so his work will be cut out for him. He has to make his linemates, and his teammates, better performers, and as the guy who wears the ‘C’, he’ll be asked to come before media night after night, good or bad, and represent his group to the outside world.
Tavares has the mental makeup to handle that, but don’t underestimate the power of the limelight that comes when you play in Toronto. Stand-up guys like Joe Nieuwendyk, an affable person who came to the Leafs with a Hockey-Hall-of-Fame resume, eventually tired of the negative elements of the local press less than one full year into his time with the Buds. Answering the same, often harsh media questions took its toll on him. If the Leafs stumble out of the gate this season, Tavares could find himself in the same line of fire. The way he answers doubters, on the ice and off of it, will be a factor in the bigger picture for his team.
Don’t take this to mean you should be doubting Tavares. As noted above, he’s proven to be approximately a point-per-gamer throughout his 12-year NHL career, and although he’s got some hard miles on his body – that’s what happens when you’re as hard on the puck as he is – it’s fair to assume the Leafs will get something similar out of him this time around. But even after years of playoff failure with the New York Islanders, he hasn’t faced the kind of pressure he’ll face this year in Toronto. There will be nowhere to hide, both for him individually, and for Matthews, Marner, and Nylander, among others. Any stumbles will be magnified. Any trains going completely off the track will be hyper-examined, and blame will be assigned throughout the roster.
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That’s why getting a great season from Tavares is so important for the Leafs in 2021-22. If he can provide elite-level secondary scoring, play tough defense for head coach Sheldon Keefe, and give Toronto’s youngsters a continuing example to foster, the pressure on Marner, Matthews, and Nylander will decrease. A looser dressing room will be huge, especially in an Olympic year (and, quite possibly, a role for Tavares on Team Canada at the 2022 Beijing Winter Games). More than anything, the Leafs need Tavares to be exactly who he’s been in the years leading up to this point, with just a little bit extra to help put them over the top and do away with their can’t-win-in-important-games narrative.
If you’ve followed Tavares up till now, you know why people believe he can elevate his game. He’s a marvelous two-way force, and if his tide raises all boats in Leafs’ camp, GM Kyle Dubas will consider Tavares’ hefty salary as money well spent.
Like his teammates, Tavares is fully aware of the pressure he and the Leafs now are under. Before he signed to join the Leafs in 2018, he had to know the potential downside of playing in Toronto. He’s not exactly in an awful situation with this current group of Leafs, but he’s not yet close to the ideal environment he had hoped to enjoy when he became a Leaf. In sum, Tavares, like the rest of Toronto’s lineup, is approaching a crossroads.
Win when you’re at these crossroads, and the next three seasons will whip by like a flash. Lose, and getting through this season – let alone, three more years after this one – may feel like an eternity. And Tavares’ output will assuredly go a good, long way in deciding which road the Leafs take.