It’s early days, yes, but John Tavares is currently on track for the best season of his NHL career.
At 32 years old. In his 14th NHL season, which will see him surpass 1,000 games.
The numbers so far: Eight goals and 15 points in 13 games. A pace of 51 goals and 95 points that would surpass Tavares’ career-best first season of 47 goals and 88 points with the Leafs — the first year of the seven-year, $77 million contract he signed in the summer of 2018.
That deal came with an $11 million cap hit, which — still — ranks as the fifth-highest number in today’s game (even with LA defenseman Drew Doughty). Tavares is paid like a STAR. But fame seemed to have slowly eluded the Leafs captain in recent years as he entered his 30s.
That’s why his start to the season is so encouraging for the Leafs.
It suggests that Tavares might be able to extend his fame (with a capital S) for a while longer. It’s something – aging gracefully – that the previous No. 1 pick spent a lot of time contemplating in the 2009 draft.
“It’s something you look at and I’m definitely interested and want to keep working on what I need to do to be really good in old age,” Tavares recently admitted the athlete.
Tavares has admittedly taken stock of how other players in the sport have been able to extend their fame well into their 30s. “I think Marty St. Louis won the scoring title after 35. He seemed to get better as he got older,” Tavares said of St. Louis actually winning the Art Ross at age 37. “I think just to have that level of success in old age is really impressive.
“Joe Pavelski,” he added, “had a great year last year as a senior player.”
Pavelski compiled an 81-point season for the Stars last season, also at the age of 37. More so than St. Louis, his size, skill and position have set a path that Tavares could certainly follow in the years to come. Pavelski was never the lightest of feet, but he was smart, hardworking and deadly on the net. He has managed to remain productive well into his old age. Pavelski scored 38 goals as a 34-year-old and was a monster during the Stars’ run to the 2020 Stanley Cup Finals.
He’s buzzing about a point a game earlier this season at the age of 38.
“I think those two players that I mentioned,” Tavares said, referring to St. Louis and Pavelski, “probably just have a really good idea of who they are as players, how they can impact the game, and they just do what they do very well.”
Continuous tweaks and adjustments are also essential, Tavares said.
“And then,” he added, “I think you just have to keep having a good sense of who you are and refine that and do that really well so that it continues to impact the game at a high level.”
Tavares is confident enough to know what that is, what works well for him and what has the potential to bring him down.
He added a half step, particularly in the offseason, a pretty crucial improvement after a season where foot speed looked like it was becoming an issue. With the help of Paul Matheson, one of the Leafs’ new skating coaches, Tavares worked to be lighter on his feet.
During the season (and off-season, of course) he unsurprisingly spends a lot of time fine-tuning his shot before and after practice. From the outside. From inside. Out of the slot. tips. distractions. envelopes. He covers everything. And indeed, Tavares has been particularly deadly in the blue color this season, ranking among the leaders in expected one-on-one goals and dangerous tries earlier this season.
He produces a lot of good stuff.
Just look at this shot table:
And if he had chances to bury opportunities, Tavares buried them.
He was particularly dominant on the power play and has already scored five goals from 19 shots. That’s a part of Tavares’ game that should remain valuable in the long run, what happens around the net with those quick fists.
Tavares is averaging 3.6 shots per game, which would be a career high. His shot attempt rate has never been higher. The same applies to individual goal chances and looks from the danger zone.
That’s not a stroke of luck, either: Tavares’ on-ice shooting percentage so far is 11.5 percent, about the highest it has been in any year. His five-to-five numbers are actually low this way, suggesting some luck is around the corner.
Tavares shoots 17 percent, a number sure to go down — though he’s always been a highly efficient scorer, never falling below 10.8 percent in the NHL.
What has to be particularly encouraging for the Leafs is how Tavares strapped the boys all the way down. With faster feet, he’s forcing turnovers at one of the highest rates of his career.
Tavares food stalls
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With five against five, he is one of the leaders.
Tavares has developed into one of the best faceoffs in the NHL as a Leaf. It’s a subtle ability that should age gracefully.
“He just stayed consistent and he is, he does,” boasted Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe of Tavares. “He comes to the rink very regularly and goes through his own preparations.”
Long after a recent workout in LA when most of his teammates had already left, Tavares could be seen riding a stationary bike in the underbelly of Crypto.com Arena. He’s never without his famous backpack of supplies and appears to have a foam roller at the ready.
Tavares says he’s tweaked his routines over the years, a benefit of all that experience. He will play his 963rd career game when the Leafs host the Golden Knights on Tuesday.
One such change: “I’m on the ice a lot more than I was when I was young,” he says of his off-season habits.
“I just think that’s what we do, that’s what we play,” Tavares explained. “The way I see it, there aren’t a lot of quarterbacks in the NFL or pitchers in the MLB that keep their arms out.”
That’s not to say, he added, that he was going 100mph in the middle of summer, “but I’m on the ice and at least I can feel the puck and I can feel how I’m moving and how that’s affecting the ice.” And I think that also contributes very, very well to your cardio and fitness – more aptly than probably anything you do off the ice.
Another tweak: quality over quantity.
“Especially in the off-season,” Tavares said, “you work on a lot of things and do a lot, but you can also wear yourself down a lot. It was important to just try to balance the workload, of course being very fit and feeling really fresh, but also getting the number of reps and things you want to work on,” he explained.
Tavares suffered an oblique strain in training camp but recovered faster than expected and was ready for the start of the season.
The leaves have slightly reduced its load. Tavares averages 17.5 minutes per game, which would be considered the lowest tally of his career. He’s down to 12.5 minutes at five-a-side, another potential career low, though he’s also fourth among Toronto forwards (behind usual firstliners Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and Michael Bunting).
Tavares has only played 20 minutes or more once all seasons. He played under 13 minutes in his four-point night against the Flyers last week.
Fewer minutes mean Tavares should be fresher for his shifts. These shifts tend to start more on offense than in the past. Tavares lands nearly 27 offensive zone draws per 60 minutes earlier this season, a career-high.
His starting offensive zone faceoff percentage is currently 60 percent, the highest for his time with the Leafs.
Tavares’ on-ice numbers at five against five are worth keeping an eye on. They were actually a bit worse than last season.
Only a whopping .935 save rate when he was out there has kept things from looking worse (although Tavares has had a bit of bad luck on offense here, too). It remains unclear which group of wingers will give the Leafs the best chance to thrive on the ice.
Tavares ranks 37th among active players in games played.
Most of the guys before him are past their prime. Only a handful still count as stars: Alex Ovechkin, Patrice Bergeron, Pavelski and Sidney Crosby.
Tavares is determined to stay there as long as possible. Can he keep himself locked for the full length of his deal, which under that deal has two more years left before it expires in 2025? That’s obviously his plan.
“My game is my own game and my own situation here, but I think you’re probably looking around to see if it’s other players, obviously in our league and our sport, and other athletes,” Tavares said of the aging curve challenge. “And then (I look) at myself and my game and the things that I’ve been through, my trajectory and my development and how I can continue to be at a high level and do whatever it takes to continue that. Things are developing. Things I need to change and adjust. And then there are strengths and things that got me to this point as a player that really needs to be a part of me that brings my identity as a player.”
Statistics and research courtesy of Natural Stat Trick, Evolving Hockey and Hockey Reference
(Top photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images)
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