Sports How Maple Leafs can lean on centre depth to overcome Tavares injury hurdle
Carey Price was the lynchpin in Montreal’s win over Toronto
Five goals or not, Carey Price won Montreal their first game of the year.While regulation was tough on the netminder, including a fifth goal, from Auston Matthews, in the dying moments, Price had given the Canadiens every chance to win in Toronto. In overtime, Price proved to everyone why he’s paid so handily, and his performance silenced even the most vocal of his detractors.
This week the Toronto Maple Leafs announced that newly minted team captain John Tavares would miss at least two weeks with a broken finger, sustained in their game against the Washington Capitals.
Even if Tavares misses a bit more than that upon a re-evaluation of the injury following that prognosis, it’s likely to be a short-term hurdle for the Leafs to overcome. In all likelihood, the Leafs will be extremely cautious with Tavares here, since it’s early in the season, and his primary asset as a player is his goal scoring.
The Tavares injury puts some stress on a centre group that has more depth but less top-end talent than last season, with head coach Mike Babcock’s first attempted reformatting of the lines puts Alex Kerfoot and Ilya Mikheyev up on the second line with Mitch Marner.
From kids to captains, the Tavares-Stamkos rivalry resumes at an interesting time
If John Tavares — with no goals after four games — needs any kind of a spark, maybe facing an old friend/foe in Steven Stamkos will do the trick when the Tampa Bay Lightning visit the Maple Leafs on Thursday night. The hockey prodigies from the Greater Toronto Area — Stamkos from Markham, Tavares from Mississauga — went first overall in back-to-back drafts (Stamkos in 2008, Tavares in 2009). It’s one of the NHL’s understated rivalries, not quite at the level of Sidney Crosby vs. Alex Ovechkin or Connor McDavid vs. Auston Matthews. But Tavares and Stamkos have always kept tabs on each other.
In order to find out if that’s the best move, let’s first look at what Tavares brings to his line at 5-on-5 and see which of the Leafs’ centres fits in that slot the best. For this I’m going to use data from last season, because we want to see what Tavares brings overall, and compare it to what the replacement options are doing right now.
So keep in mind that for Tavares, we’re looking at 2018-19 data, while the others are 2019-20.
All of these statistics Tavares was either the best on the Leafs or second-best last season, aside from controlled entries where he was fourth. Replicating some of his success in these areas would go a long way to keeping that line ticking while he’s out.
Kerfoot has been playing centre so far this season, but he hasn’t been a full-time centre in his NHL career, so this is a scenario where the Leafs may miss Nazem Kadri a little bit. From a shooting perspective, Kerfoot is by far the worst direct replacement for Tavares of these three, though keep in mind that the sample size for Spezza is miniscule.
John Tavares confident the goals will come as Leafs prepare to host Lightning
John Tavares will be looking to break out of his goalless drought when the Maple Leafs meet the Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday night in a matchup of two of the Eastern Conference’s most skilled teams. Tavares, who led the Leafs last season with a career-high 47 goals, has three assists over the first four games of the season but has yet to find the back of the net. He’s not worried. “There were times (early in my career) when I used to get more frustrated,” the captain said at the Leafs’ morning skate. “But now, just focus on doing things right, trust your abilities, and trust that it will come and they (pucks) will start going in.
What Kerfoot does bring over the others is an ability to gain the offensive zone with control, and it’s clear from the construction of that line that Babcock is thinking about speed and transition by adding Mikheyev as well, while the pressure would be more on Marner to create the offence.
Throughout his short career, Kerfoot has been a very good playmaker, but has struggled to flex those muscles this season as a centre, so perhaps playing with Marner who is one of the league’s best playmaking wingers will take some of that stress off of him and help him relax a bit, but that’s just hypothetical.
In limited action, Spezza has had some stellar offensive numbers with the Leafs, hanging out near the net in the offensive zone just like Tavares likes to, putting shots on net from in tight, finding teammates with deft passes, winning puck battles at a surprisingly high rate, and recovering rebounds like nobody’s business.
Tavares calls lopsided home-ice loss 'unacceptable'
Tavares calls lopsided home-ice loss 'unacceptable'Toronto Maple Leafs captain John Tavares didn't mince words when assessing his team's performance in its 7-3 loss on home ice to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday night.
Whether Spezza can keep that up with tougher competition over a longer period is very much in doubt, but for a short stretch he may prove himself to be a decent option if Kerfoot struggles.
Freddy Gauthier meanwhile has been having a stellar start to the year offensively, leading the group in scoring chances and connecting on an above-average number of passes to the slot. Gauthier is a decent net-front presence and battles hard down low, but in transition he’s not a very good fit with Marner, which kind of rules him out.
The offensive zone is just one part of the game though, how are these players faring overall? We know Tavares is a high-end play driver, so let’s compare apples to apples this time and look at where these guys stand up to him in on-ice differentials.
Ol’ small sample size Spezza is throwing absolutely everything off here in the graph and making it tough to see, but look at how crazy dominant he’s been in his extremely limited usage. Pretty impressive stuff even if it can’t continue at that level.
Tavares has only been even on high-danger chances this season after being at about 54 per cent last season, and the Leafs have been outplayed from a playmaking perspective when that line is on the ice.
Leafs loan Rasmus Sandin to AHL Marlies, recall Kevin Gravel
Maple Leafs defenceman Rasmus Sandin is headed back to the Toronto Marlies after six games in the NHL. The Leafs announced Monday they were loaning the 19-year-old to their AHL affiliate, while recalling defenceman Kevin Gravel. Sandin showed tremendous promise in training camp, earning more and more ice time over the preseason until the coaching staff made the decision to keep him on the season-opening roster. Sandin impressed at the outset of the regular season, showcasing his speed, puck movement and hockey sense but he began to lose net battles in games against St. Louis, Tampa and Detroit.
Tavares’ most likely replacement in Kerfoot has been strong on defence in limiting passes, something he was excellent at last season, but looks horrid in high-danger scoring chances from the inner slot. Looks are a bit deceiving there though.
The differential is horrible, but Kerfoot has been slightly above team average defensively, it’s just that his line hasn’t shot much from the inner slot at all. That’s a big change in playing style from what Tavares usually brings, but Kerfoot’s line has made up for it with dominance from the high slot, while tending to not give up much defensively.
Gauthier has been close to even on all fronts, which is good news for the Leafs’ depth.
Obviously, there’s no way to internally replace someone like Tavares, so it’s a good thing he’s only out short-term, but the Leafs are better placed to weather this than they have been in recent years.
On the top end, there’s no doubt that Nazem Kadri would have been a better pound-for-pound replacement for Tavares than any of these candidates, but Gauthier’s strong start and Spezza’s addition to the team allows the Leafs to rely on all four lines over this injury.
Another ripple in here is that moving Mikheyev up to the Marner line allows Kasperi Kapanen to go back to his natural position on the right wing, which it looks like he needs. Kapanen has struggled mightily this season, so if he can get back to what’s expected of him, it helps insulate that third line.
The fourth line is already strong with centre duties split between Gauthier and Nick Shore, so there isn’t much to worry about there either.
The Leafs aren’t as good without Tavares, but they aren’t bad either.
Matthews explains calling out Leafs: 'Sometimes you gotta yell at your family' .
Auston Matthews called out himself and his Toronto Maple Leafs teammates after Tuesday's loss to the rival Boston Bruins. "It's just not good enough," he said postgame. "We need to be better and I think it comes from the leadership group. I need to be better. All of us need to be better. We just need to look each other in the eye and hold each other accountable." The Maple Leafs are 5-4-2 to start the season and have dropped three of their last four games. Matthews shed more light on his comments Thursday."We're a family here, but sometimes you gotta yell at your family," he told TSN's Kristen Shilton.