You've all heard it from somewhere: John Tavares is the reason the Leafs can't add five or six new superstar players and win the Cup. He's no good anymore, he's past it, he's in the way, even if you move him to wing, he's still no good, and they should just threaten to put him in the AHL to get him to waive his no-move clause.
Aside from the tendency of all hockey fans to act like toddlers throwing their toys out of the playpen in the summer because they want new toys, not these boring old toys they've seen make mistakes, what on earth is this about?
Since there is likely no one who regularly writes about hockey less interested in points than I am, usually when an inexplicable opinion gains traction, I look at the point stats and suddenly get it. Not, in the sense that I agree with it, you realize, I just get where it's coming from.
I've taken to looking at career stats only back to 2017 lately, since that marks the major increase in overall NHL shot rates and quality. The game changed. So for Tavares, we begin with him still in Long Island and look at ordinary all-situations numbers. And, uh, I don't get it. This didn't help.
Okay, his TOI is lower this year, what if I rate that... this year is his highest goal scoring rate of the period. By quite a bit. Also the highest points rate.
Okay, that's enough of the all-situations, how about some Even Strength:
It's not his best year ever, but it's well within his normal range. You have to work very hard to see a decline here. In fact, you have to decide there is a decline and select things to look at to prove it.
His points rate on the power play this year was his highest in the period, led by goals but also by primary assists.
The other thing people get worked up over with players that I don't care about is faceoffs. As a centre, Tavares needs to be a faceoff beast, right? Geez, where the hell do I find faceoff numbers in traditional form... okay, Natural Stat Trick provides. I didn't even bother to filter out all the players who took 10 faceoffs and got lucky, and John Tavares is 43rd in the NHL. When I do remove all those guys, he was ninth.
Oh, is he bad defensively? Is he nothing like Mark Stone? Let's find out. First thing to look for is on-ice save %, which is not a measure of anything the player did, it's things that happened to him, and yes I know you want to argue that players contribute to that measure, but it's not repeatable. It's just stuff that happened, fault spread amongst multitudes. This year, at Even Strength, Tavares saw .901 (.911 team overall), last year .898 (.901), and the year before .926 (.918). Wow, he really got bad fast, eh? <- this is sarcasm, in case you still think this measures player value.
The 2021-2022 on-ice percentage may be leading to a perception that he's bad, should feel bad, and should just quietly go away. Both he and William Nylander had a bad GF% that season, and that was obviously their fault, they weren't trying, and they were bad. Nylander had a great scoring year this season, so he's not bad now, just Tavares is.
I mean, points and faceoffs and on-ice save % are not measures of player quality, so maybe he has declined. It would be weird if he hasn't. The structure of a big UFA contract for a star, beyond the PR factor, is that you know going in it won't be a value deal on the back end. They are like this on purpose because you have to pay for the rarity of a star player becoming available somehow. If you complain about the deal in its final years, you've made a hypocrite of past you who cheered the early years of the deal.
But, has there been a real decline? I'm going to look at RAPM in numerical form. This is the same concept behind the Evolving Hockey charts with the lovely purple (I am pro any chart not red and blue). The idea here is to take simple, relatively familiar stats and adjust them for teammates, competition, etc. Because of the nature of the stats, they are a plus/minus in form, the numbers are multi-decimal places, and hard to eyeball the differences so I put in an average of prior years.
Please note that xGA and GA numbers are better the lower they are, so negative is good there.
What this says in general is that Tavares was not adding to the overall goal picture for and against, but wasn't a big problem either, and the xG is similar. His Corsi for and Corsi overall was poor for the first time. But his actual impact on Expected Goals Against and Corsi Against was the best it's ever been.
It was an odd year for him – he ended up with very good goals and points numbers, and got there in slightly different ways to his usual. He's not the main impact player on shotshare or offence generation on his line. I want to see if HockeyViz's model agrees, and it does mostly. Tavares these days has a gentle positive effect on offence generation, is a beast of exceptional value on the power play, and has some gently helpful impacts defensively.
He shoots at the same rate as always, his shooting percentage was normal this year, his Expected Goals was normal. So his individual behaviour in the offensive zone at all the things he does from the faceoff to the goal celebration is identical to who he was when he arrived in Toronto.
At 32, it seems he's not the spine of the team. He's not Auston Matthews, one of the greatest creators of offence in the game. He is on the power play – they are of a piece there.
I don't necessarily think playing him with William Nylander and "guy of the day" on the other wing is the best way to get the most out of Tavares's epic skillset at five-on-five. If the Leafs insist on that pairing, then the other winger needs to bring some missing behaviours to the party. Some zone exit and early transition skills before you pass off to Nylander. He needs to forecheck pretty hard, and he needs to not be hogging the net front, because you gotta have a tip artist at the easel, not 50 feet away taking useless shots as the forward playing high.
But wherever the idea is coming from that the Leafs just need to shed this loser and then they can prosper – you go find a guy at 24 who can do what Tavares does well, and I bet you imaginary money, his defending is worse, his faceoffs are worse, his physical play is worse and his overall value to the team is much worse. And he'd cost you a pile of cash.
Not all players are perfect. But whining that John Tavares isn't a defensive stud is like hiring a violinist to change your tires and then getting upset that all they did was play beautiful music.