The Tavares Effect
The Maple Leafs pulled off the biggest free agency move in a long time, if not ever, by reeling in John Tavares. Will it put them over the top, or are their weaknesses still too glaring to be true contenders?
Offense – elite. Goaltending – elite. Defense – suspect. The Maple Leafs report card is littered with ‘A’s’ however, the noticeable gap between process and result comes by looking at how they performed defensively. The Maple Leafs ranked 26th and earned a D for expected goals against, however they produced a top-15 result in goals against thanks to stellar goaltending.
What went right:
Prior to the current group, the last time the Leafs made back-to-back playoff appearances, Mats Sundin was their leading scorer and two-line passes were illegal. Toronto’s success came in large part because of their elite offense. Led by 60+ points seasons from Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander, the Leafs tied Pittsburgh for 3rd most goals in the NHL. The first powerplay unit of Marner, James van Riemsdyk, Nazem Kadri, Tyler Bozak, and Morgan Rielly was the NHL’s most productive in term of goals per-20 minutes among units with at least 75 minutes of ice time. As a whole, Toronto finished with the 2nd best powerplay in the league. Long story short, Toronto had no trouble filling the back of the net last year.
What Went Wrong:
The Maple Leafs’ defense allowed 230 goals, good for 12th best in the NHL. Their underlying numbers, however, don’t look sustainable. At even-strength, they allowed the 4th most shots and the 6th most slot shots. As a result, Frederik Andersen faced the most shots of any goalie last season and was the only one to record over 2,000 saves. Under that amount of pressure, he was still able to post a .918 save percentage, tied for 10th best in the NHL, but you have to wonder how long he can keep facing this kind of barrage without cracking.
Key Additions: John Tavares, Par Lindholm
Key Departures: James van Riemsdyk, Tyler Bozak, Tomas Plekanec, Leo Komarov, Matt Martin
Other Key moves: Re-signed Martin Marincin
Adding John Tavares was the biggest free agency coup of the salary cap era, if not ever, so kudos to GM Kyle Dubas for pulling this off. Already deep down the middle with Matthews and Kadri, Tavares will give head coach Mike Babcock a third 30+ goal scorer at the position, depth that no other team in the NHL can match.
However, adding the former Islanders captain didn’t come without a cost. The Leafs lost Tyler Bozak, quietly a key part in their first powerplay unit, which was the best in the league last season. Van Riemsdyk left for Philly, taking his 36 goals, league-best 47 deflected shots on net and imposing net-front presence with him. Deadline acquisition Tomas Plekanec went back to Montreal, while Leo Komarov, their second most used forward on the penalty kill, signed with the Islanders. William Nylander is also still looking for a new deal as a restricted free agent.
While most people would agree that adding Tavares was worth losing those players, it will still require an adaptation period for both players and coaches, especially on special teams, as most of the players they lost were key parts of either powerplay or shorthanded units.
Next season preview
What could go right?
They added Tavares to what was already the third best offense in the NHL last year, giving them the best 1-2-3 at center in the league. One thing is certain: with all their offensive firepower, opposing coaches will lose some sleep thinking about how to stop all of their weapons. On defense, while they didn’t add any outside help, Travis Dermott could give them a boost. The former second-round pick was impressive in his 37 games with the big club and could push for a top-4 role this season. Andreas Johnsson is another prospect who could make the jump to the big club after posting 54 points in as many games for the Marlies.
What could go wrong?
While adding Tavares was a huge coup, it didn’t address the Leafs’ blueline needs. Is Nikita Zaitsev capable of a bounce-back year and cementing his status as a top-4 defenseman? Is Travis Dermott ready for a top-4 role, playing his weak side? Can Ron Hainsey continue to eat tough minutes and tons of penalty kill minutes? The Leafs also lost strong defensive forwards like Plekanec, Komarov, and Bozak, which likely means that Freddie Andersen will be a busy man once again.
Losing Bozak and JVR may also hurt more than some think, especially on the power play, as they made up 40% of the league’s most productive powerplay unit. Tavares will pick up some of the slack, obviously, but it could take some time to build chemistry back to the level it was with last year’s unit.