Toronto Maple Leafs: Is John Tavares Starting to Decline?

Did the Toronto Maple Leafs make a mistake signing John Tavares?

Toronto Maple Leafs captain John Tavares is 30 yrs old.  He makes $11,000,000/yr for 5 more years.  Has Dubas made a mistake?  Let’s take a look at John Tavares.

Tavares has a lot of mileage on his 6’1″ frame.  He came into the league as an 18 yr old phenom, and that starts the clock ticking right away.  Even as a rookie, he played 18 minutes/game as a #1 center in the toughest league in the world.

He was used primarily in the offensive zone, but he still played against tough match-ups because he was easily the best player on that Islanders team in 2009-2010.  He was their best player every season after that as well, up until the moment Dubas signed him to a $77 million dollar deal to put on a Toronto Maple Leafs jersey during the summer of 2018.

Toronto Maple Leafs and John Tavares

Tavares has had, by all accounts, a very successful career up to this point.  There’s no doubt to his production and elite performance during his time in the NHL.  And we all know how good he was in his debut season as a Leaf.  However, people are a little bit worried because at first glance, last season appeared to be a down year for Tavares and he just turned 30.

Tavares injured his hand early in the season, missed several games and it was widely reported that his shooting was affected even after he returned to the lineup.  This probably explains some of woes last season.  Some additional digging into the data may suggest that JT did not have such a bad season.  He may, in fact, be primed for a very productive bounce back season.

I’m going to take a quick look at his career averages, and then I’m going to compare them to the last two seasons.

A quick summary of some stats are as follows:

Season     Team    CF%   CF% rel   FF%   FF% rel   PDO     dZS%   G/gm  Pts/gm   xGF  
2018-19   TOR       53.3    2.5        51.2    1.6       102.8   48.2    0.57     1.07       79.1
2019-20   TOR       53.2    1.4        52.1    0.8        98.1     46.8    0.41     0.95       48.3
9 yrs           NYI        51.1    3.2        50.7    2.2        99.3     39.3    0.41     0.93       65.8
2 yrs           TOR       53.3    2.0        51.6    1.3       100.8   47.6    0.50     1.02       63.7
Career                       51.5    2.8        50.9    1.9        99.6     40.9    0.42     0.94       65.1

Tavares clearly had a drop in offensive production, but it wasn’t a steep drop off.  It was a small one, most likely explained by the low PDO and the hand injury. (All stats from hockey-reference.com).

He still posted better per game numbers than his career averages.  We do expect those numbers to be higher though, considering he is playing on a more talented team and his numbers should be higher.  Still, it’s not like he fell off the Marleau mountain or anything.

Stats for xGF are only available starting in the 2014-2015 season, but those years are the prime years for Tavares so I believe them to be an accurate depiction of his ability to generate offense.  We definitely need to dig into his career low xGF of 48.3.

The previously mentioned injury is most likely why you see the drastic drop in xGF with him on the ice last year.  xGF is based on quality shot generation with the more dangerous shot attempts increasing the xGF number.  Tavares is not a speedy guy, never has been, and so his elite production has always come from his hands.  Watch some of his highlight videos posted earlier, and imagine him with a broken finger.

Even with a wounded finger, and the Leafs being arguably a bad team for some of the 2019-20 season, Tavares still put up better than career numbers in CF% and FF%.  He still controlled play at a decent rate.  He still won face-offs.  His shooting % and his shot generation were right at his career norms.

Another factor is goal-tending.  Tavares is used in a much more defensive role with the Leafs than he was in New York.  He gets defensive zone starts.  He goes up against tough competition.  If you make a save, confident offensive players like Tavares take a few more risks offensively and tend to make a few more elite plays.  If you don’t make a save, well, the game can become a much tougher grind.  Confidence is a fickle thing and it has a tremendous impact on performance.

Leafs as a team the last 2 years basically look like this:

2018-19, Pts% 0.610,  SV% 0.908 vs. league average SV% 0.905

2019-20, Pts% 0.579,  SV% 0.901 vs. league average SV% 0.905

Other than the Toronto Maple Leafs getting crushed on the cycle by teams that know how to hem them in, plus a coaching change after a dreadful start, the team was basically good last year.  They just had bad goaltending. 

If you look at Tavares last year, his PDO was below career norms and far below the 102.8 he had in 2018-19.  I think it’s a simple fix.  Give Tavares a healthy hand.  Make a few more saves.  And…VOILA!…a normal Tavares is back.

We may not like the contract in a few more years as age begins to erode his skills, but it’s not happening yet Toronto Maple Leafs fans.  I don’t have any issues with this player or his contract going into 2020-21.