Toronto Maple Leafs: John Tavares Problems Are on Sheldon Keefe

TORONTO, ON - JANUARY 13: John Tavares #91 of the Toronto Maple Leafs waits for a puck against the Montreal Canadiens during an NHL game at Scotiabank Arena on January 13, 2021 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The Maple Leafs defeated the Canadiens 5-4 in overtime. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)
TORONTO, ON - JANUARY 13: John Tavares #91 of the Toronto Maple Leafs waits for a puck against the Montreal Canadiens during an NHL game at Scotiabank Arena on January 13, 2021 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The Maple Leafs defeated the Canadiens 5-4 in overtime. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images) /

The Toronto Maple Leafs have points in four games in a row and seem to be back on track after a light siesta.

A recent hot topic of Toronto Maple Leafs conversation has been about John Tavares and how his play has not been up to par, considering his contract and superstar status.

The main criticism of Tavares is that he is not scoring as much as he used to.  Two year ago he led the NHL with 33 5v5 goals, scoring a whopping 1.58 goals per 60, while this year he is down over two-thirds of that and scoring at a weak 0.49 goals per 60. (stats

Now, defenders of Tavares have pointed to his low shooting percentages this year, and his increased focus on defense as justifications for his reduced scoring.

As usual, there is no quick answer here and both narratives somewhat miss the mark, while the truth seems to be a little too complicated for our easy-answer culture.

Toronto Maple Leafs and John Tavares

The good news on Tavares is as follows:  He does have 28 points in 34 games, and his 6.35 individual shooting percentages is very low, and in fact is the lowest, by far, of his career.  This is also true for his on-ice shooting percentage.  This strongly suggests that the numbers are deflated and will improve with time.

The other good news is that this isn’t really hurting the team.  When Tavares scored his 33 5v5 goals two years ago (47 over all) he did so with the Leafs getting 59.71% of the total goals scored when he’s on the ice.  That number is up this year.

The Leafs also get a better percentage of the shots when he’s on the ice this year, and they get a better expected-goals rating.

It is also actually true that his defense is better.  According to the JFresh Player Cards, Tavares’ defense in the past two season was worse than all but roughly 20% of NHL players.  This year, he’s better than 44% of players.

That’s actually quite a bit of good news.,

Now for the Bad News

While Tavares’ defense is better, since his offense is down, we must ask if this is a good trade off?  When it comes to game theory, it’s always best to focus on what makes you elite rather than diversify and become more well rounded, especially when you have a game where the margins are so small.

It is almost certainly better for Tavares to be an ELITE (we’re talking better than 99%) offensive player  and a bad defensive player that it is for him to be a very good offensive player and an OK defensive player.

It is better to just try to outscore opponents when Tavares is on the ice.  There is no upside in paying $11 million dollars for defense. You don’t need to spend anything to find a defensive centre who can be better than 44% of other forwards at defense.

This isn’t because defense isn’t important, it’s because the NHL is a salary cap league and offensive players cost a lot of money relative to their defensively adept counterparts.

And while the Leafs as a team are doing slightly better this season with Tavares on the ice than they did in his best year, this too is misleading because when  Tavares has been on the ice this season the Leafs goalies have stopped almost 96% of shots which is way beyond what is sustainable.

Furthermore, Tavares is  now playing one minute less per game than he did when he scored those 47 goals, and is taking almost two shots less per 60 minutes of ice time, while playing with Nylander and not Marner.

As time goes on and weird stats get corrected, Tavares will score more, but probably not as much his defense and it’s current ridiculous save percentage will decrease, so what should the Toronto Maple Leafs do?

Toronto Maple Leafs John Tavares Options

As I see it the Leafs have a few options with Tavares.

  1. Put him Back with Marner and insist he go to the net more. Don’t worry so much about defense.
  2. Put him on left-wing on a super line.  If there is any halfway decent second line centre option, this would allow you to get the most bang for your buck. (I wouldn’t hate a Galchenyuk-Nylander-Robertson line).
  3. Keep him with Nylander, but have him focus more on his strengths.

At the end of the day, Tavares isn’t playing badly, but he definitely could be more effective.  It would be one-thing if his defensive efforts were paying off, but they seem to be almost entirely dependent on the goalie. You didn’t pay Tavares so much money to give you 44th percentile defense, so let him focus on what he does best.

This is completely on Sheldon Keefe, who has to a) increase his ice-time b) re-define his role, and c) put him in position to succeed.  This is a classic case of falling into the trap of overrating defense and underrating offense that happens all the time in the NHL.  This is ironic, given I think it’s obvious that fans do the opposite, but there are many examples of coaches wanting to turn their Ferraris into  All Terrain Vehicles.  I think that’s what is happening here.

I’m not saying defense isn’t important, I’m saying that if you want a defensive centre, don’t pay him $11 million dollars.  If you did pay someone that much money, have him focus on what he does best.,

Coaching 101 says focus on what you do best and don’t try to re-invent the wheel.  You want a 44% defensive centre who doesn’t shoot much and can’t score? Promote Pierre Engvall and save yourself some money.

dark. Next. All of the Trades

You want to continue down the path your on? Have Tavares do what makes him special.