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Get to know John Tavares

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He’s really good. We know that much, but what else is he like?

Oshawa Generals v St. Michaels’ Majors

Most of the time, when the Leafs acquire a player, we do some research and present a more complete look at the player than you can throw together in a few minutes on draft day or July 1. It seems silly on the surface to do that for John Tavares, but do we really know him? Or is he just famous.

Background

If you want the full story, you must read this book chapter posted by Bob McKenzie. But the short version is that Tavares was born in Mississauga; he turns 28 a few days after Auston Matthews turns 21 (which is during training camp), and he’s a left-shooting centre who is listed at just over six feet and 200 pounds. Much like Matthews, he’s neither big nor small, and he would have spent his childhood as the youngest player on his team.

It’s going to be interesting to watch the coming media stories comparing the twin stars that lead the Maple Leafs. They have a lot of similarities: immigrant backgrounds in recent generations, parents who worked amazingly hard to give their children lives they didn’t have, close families, and an individual drive and work ethic that is why they are both stars, not merely very good players.

Tavares started out playing in the Toronto area hockey systems, and played for the Toronto Marlboros teams before moving onto the Milton Icehawks in the OJPHL where he played 20 games at age 14. The OJPHL, a precursor to the Ontario Junior Hockey League, was a lower level junior league than the OHL, but it was a cut above Tavares’s regular age group league.

The next year, he became the first player allowed to join the OHL at 15. In this way, his early career was more like an elite European than a Canadian player. When William Nylander was 15, he played 27 games on the J18 team, 8 on the J20 team and only 3 on the J16 team for his club.

However, while Nylander was good as a 15 year old, Tavares was an instant force in the OHL at that age. He had 45 goals, 32 assists for 77 points in 65 games in 2005-2006. With his late birthday, he’d only just turned 15 before the season started. He wasn’t a year younger than most of the other rookies, he was a year and a half younger. There was only one other player on that team who made the NHL: Cal Clutterbuck.

Tavares’s second year in the OHL, when he’d caught up in age to the rookies, was absurd. He scored more than a goal per game. His points make Mitch Marner’s OHL efforts look weak. But if you want a cautionary tale on taking points stats to mean everything, here’s a list of players who have bettered the 1.75 points per game that Tavares put up in his junior career:

Sheldon Keefe, Matthew Tkachuk, Brian Bellows, Randy Cunneyworth, Doug Gilmour, and a list of other players I’ve never heard of.

Tavares’s junior glory just rolled on unchecked. He competed in the U17 and the U18 World Championships in the same year, and followed that up with two years at the WJC where he won two gold medals, and he had two playoff runs, one in Oshawa and one in London, that included a lot of points.

Post draft in 2009, Tavares walked into the NHL, old for a just drafted rookie like Matthews was, in a reversal of everything he’d ever known before.

  • 24 goals - 30 assists - 54 points
  • 40 goals - 29 assists - 69 points

You should know which is which rookie’s box score, and we’ve found the major difference between Tavares and Matthews, which is the difference between Matthews and nearly everyone, of course. Tavares has, throughout his career, had a higher assist to goal ratio, and he likes to roam the ice and make plays. Matthews is a shooter first, last and always.

With junior hockey behind him, and a very successful rookie career in the books, John Tavares spent eight more seasons with the New York Islanders.

Life on the Island

The first time the Islanders made the playoffs during John Tavares’s career was the lockout year, 2013. He’d been made the alternate captain the year before, had his first 30-goal season, and had played in his third World Championships. You have to imagine he was getting tired of that and expected better, only to be forced to miss half a season of NHL hockey in his prime.

The lockout year started for him in Switzerland where he had 17 goals and 25 assists in 28 games. On a team where he was by far the best player, he had a very Matthews-esque stat line. Matthews’ Swiss season was 24 goals and 22 assists in 36 games. Of course, he was a little younger at the time.

When Tavares finally got to play NHL hockey in 2013, he hit nearly a point per game, as he had the year before, and the Islanders got to the playoffs, only to lose in six games to the Pittsburgh Penguins.

The next year, Tavares became captain, and he settled into a routine of ~30 goals and 60-80+ points each season. The Islanders made the playoffs twice more, playing seven and 11 games in those two efforts. The game seven loss to the Washington Capitals in 2015 was followed by the Islanders’ best season ever. It ended in a drubbing by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the second round that was painful to watch.

The Islanders looked so thoroughly defeated in that series — this was the first time I’d ever watched them play a full series — that I expected mass firings and a huge reorganization that summer. The fact that it didn’t come might be why we are all where we are now.

The Numbers

Points fluctuate up and down for all players. The number of goals you score has a lot of random chance built in, but one thing that nine years of NHL seasons can tell you is where a player’s normal shooting percentage lies. Tavares has four years under 10 per cent, and five years from 11.83 - 16.19. He is, like a lot of elite level players, a natural above-average shooter. He’s not Steven Stamkos, who has never had a season below 10 per cent until this past year, and who more consistently shoots at 14 per cent or higher, but he’s very, very good.

Tavares shoots at a very consistent rate as well. His Individual Corsi For per 60 minutes is right around 13 - 14 all the time. On the Maple Leafs, that would have put him below the top class of volume shooters and in the second group with Nazem Kadri, Nylander and Marner. All three of those players are pass and shoot forwards like Tavares, not shooting specialists like Matthews.

The top tier on the Leafs was always led by James van Riemsdyk, and last year was no different. Andreas Johnsson and Auston Matthews were right behind him with 17 and 15.6 individual Corsi For per 60.

Tavares’s on-ice results have varied a lot over his career. So to look at his most recent season and see a really high Corsi Against and a percentage of an unlovely 47.85 is extremely misleading. These results depend so much on teammates and usage that it shouldn’t surprise that a team like the Islanders, who have been on the playoff bubble for years and, we can assume, lack quality depth, have had inconsistent performance.

Tavares is not a player who is going to give you really low shots against just by being on the ice, however. He’s not Patrice Bergeron. But he does consistently participate in offensive pressure that’s Leafs-like in its power. The problem is that last season, playing with Josh Bailey and Anders Lee most of the time, his Corsi Against would have raised eyebrows even on the Leafs.

For the three years prior to that, Tavares had a Corsi For percentage in the 51-55 range and he achieved that with better offensive pace and much, much better shots against than his last, fruitless Islanders’ season showed. The interesting thing about those three years, is that there’s a lot of Bailey and Lee time in there as well. Tavares also played with Kyle Okposo and Ryan Strome a fair amount as well as Nikolay Kulemin.

Whatever went wrong on the Islanders this past year either started on the blueline — a fair guess — or was coming from behind the bench — another possibility. So, while I don’t think we should expect Tavares to be the Corsi saviour some Leafs fans have been hoping for, I think he’s better than most current members of the forward corps at getting the puck where it needs to be and keeping it there.

We know Tavares is good at getting the puck in the net. He scores between six and 12 power play goals every season, but his shot rate on the power play, which peaked last season, has never been anywhere near the pace that the Leafs top unit produces. In this, he’s more like Matthews, stuck in the merely very good range, not frighteningly elite like Marner and Kadri. Tavares has never played with Mitch Marner, however. So while I believe Matthews will be driven to become the best power play forward on the team just because that’s the kind of guy he is, Tavares might just need to show up to get a bump in his stats. His 12 power play goals would have tied him for first on the Leafs with Kadri last year, so the quality of the shooter matters too.

Tavares played a lot of penalty kill minutes in the last two years, which he had never done before. He scored three short-handed goals in that time, but his Corsi Against rate on the PK was so bad last season, he’d have been kicked off the second PK unit on the Leafs and told to never come back. The year before last, it was at least mediocre. This doesn’t really seem to be his forte, however, and on the Leafs, there’s a lot of younger forwards who are better. We might rarely see him on the PK, although using him and Marner on the last PK shift to start the transition to five-on-five would be a lot of fun.

The Tavares Effect

The one thing I knew about the newest Maple Leaf going into this research exercise was the Tavares effect. I first encountered it researching P.-A. Parenteau, but the effect began in Tavares’s first year in the NHL.

His first regular linemate was Matt Moulson in 2009-2010. Moulson had three 30-goal seasons for the Islanders beginning in that year, and he played with Tavares for all three seasons plus a successful lockout-shortened season. He was traded to Buffalo the next year and his career high in goals post-Tavares was 23 that season, dwindling to zero in 14 games for the Sabres last year.

Parenteau overlapped with Moulson, and he had 20 goals in his first Tavares season, followed by 18 the next year. He had one more good season in Colorado after, but it took until his penultimate NHL season on the tanking Leafs before he’d come close to his Tavares years with 20 goals again.

Kyle Okposo played occasionally with Tavares throughout his Islanders career. He managed to keep up the goal scoring when he also went to the Sabres, but his assists have vanished in the face of no one to pass the puck to who can score. Of all the Tavares linemates over the years, Okposo might be the one who brought the most to the table.

Brad Boyes shows up with Tavares and Moulson in the lockout year, and he had as many points in 48 games as he did in each of his two subsequent full seasons in Florida.

Tomas Vanek got the Tavares treatment in 2013-2014, and his 44 points in 47 games on the Islanders that year comes close to his full seasons elsewhere ever since, with the exception of last year where he really seemed to surge in effectiveness.

Anders Lee came on the scene mid-way through the next season, as did Josh Bailey, and they’ve put up some impressive numbers the last few years, particularly Lee, who like Okposo brings some personal contribution to the mix over and above some of the others. Bailey’s points soared as soon as he got on Tavares’s line. It will be interesting to see how much they drop this season.

On his new team, John Tavares is going to be playing with, potentially, Mitch Marner and Patrick Marleau or Zach Hyman. And they have been driving offensive pace, scoring goals and generally wrecking havoc on the ice on their own for long enough for us to think that they don’t need the Tavares effect to succeed.

But what will they achieve with it? That’s the tantalizing question we won’t have the answer to until this season begins. How good is John Tavares with linemates good enough to take the wheel some of the time?

His career high in points came in 2014-2015 with 86. He was two shy of that last year. He’s also never quite hit 40 goals in his career. Is 40 goals and 90 points too much to ask for? Anything can happen in hockey, and the most we can expect is some fun getting to wherever we get, but those numbers aren’t impossible. And the best part is, whatever Tavares does, Auston Matthews will want to better.