Behind John Tavares’ attempts to defy the Maple Leafs’ aging curve
At the age of 32. In his 14th NHL season, during which he will cross the 1,000-game plateau.
The numbers so far: Eight goals and 15 points in 13 games. A 51-goal, 95-point pace that would surpass Tavares’ 47-goal, 88-point first season with the Leafs — the first year of the seven-year, $77 million contract he signed in the summer of 2018. .
That deal came in at a whopping $11 million, which still ranks as the fifth-highest in the game today (even with L.A.’s defense Drew Doughty). Tavares is paid like a STAR. However, the stardom felt like he was slowly starting to slip away from the Leafs captain in recent years as he hit his 30s.
That’s why their start to the season is so encouraging for the Leafs.
It suggests that Tavares could extend his stardom (with a capital S) a little longer. It’s something — aging gracefully — that the former No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 draft has spent a lot of time thinking about.
“It’s something you look at, and I’m definitely interested and want to continue to work on what I need to do to be really good as I get older,” Tavares recently explained to The Athletic.
Tavares has taken stock of how other sports players have been able to extend their stardom into their 30s. “I think Marty Saint Louis won the scoring title after 35 years. He seemed to get better as he got older,” Tavares said of St. Louis, who actually won the Art Ross at age 37. “I think just to have that level of success when you’re older. it’s really impressive.
“Joe Pavelski“, he added, “had a great year last year as a senior player.”
Pavelski put together a season high of 81 points for the stars, also aged 37, last season. More than St. Louis, by size, skill and position, has set a path that Tavares could surely follow in the years to come. Never the quickest on his feet, but smart, hardworking and lethal in net, Pavelski has managed to stay productive well into what should be his twilight years. Pavelski scored 38 goals as a 34-year-old and was a monster during the Stars’ run to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2020.
He’s singing a point per game early this season at age 38.
“I think the two players 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 affect the game, and they just do what they do. really well.”
Continued tweaks and adjustments were also essential, Tavares said.
“And then,” he added, “I think continuing to have a good idea of who you are and refining that and making it really good so that it continues to impact the game at a high level.”
Tavares is self-aware enough to know what that is, what works well for him and what has the potential to drag him down.
He especially added a halfway through 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 become lighter on his feet.
During the season (and obviously the offseason as well), he also spends some time, unsurprisingly, fine-tuning his shot before and after practice. From the outside From the inside From the slot. Advices. deviations wraps It covers everything. And indeed, Tavares has been particularly lethal around the blue paint this season, ranking among the league leaders in expected individual goals and high-danger attempts earlier this season.
It is generating many good things.
Just look at this trait chart:
And when he has had opportunities to bury opportunities, Tavares has buried them.
He’s been particularly dominant on the power play, crushing five goals already on 19 shots. That’s a part of Tavares’ game that should be valuable long-term, with those quick gloves around the net.
Tavares is averaging 3.6 shots per game, which would be a career high. His shot attempt rate has never been higher. The same with individual scoring chances and looks from the penalty area.
That’s no luck, either: Tavares’ on-ice shooting percentage so far is 11.5 percent, about the number every year recently. His five-on-five numbers this way are really low, suggesting that good luck is just around the corner.
Tavares is shooting 17 percent, a number that is sure to drop, though he has always been a very efficient scorer, never below 10.8 percent in the NHL.
What has to be especially encouraging for the Leafs is how Tavares has been chomping at the bit guys down low. With quicker feet, he’s forcing turnovers at a career-high rate.
Takeaway from Tavares
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He is among the league leaders in five-on-five.
Tavares has developed into one of the best faceoff men in the NHL as a Leaf. This is a subtle skill that should age gracefully.
“He’s been consistent and that’s who he is, that’s what he does,” Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe boasted of Tavares. “He’s very consistent coming to the court, doing his own preparations.”
Long after a recent practice in LA, when most of his teammates had already gone, Tavares could be seen riding an exercise bike in the lower part of Crypto.com Arena. He’s never without his famous supply backpack and seems 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 more than when I was younger,” he says of his offseason habits.
“I just think that this is what we do, this is what we play,” explained Tavares. “I look at it like, there’s not a lot of quarterbacks in the NFL or kickers MLBthat they let their arms rest for a long time.”
That’s not to say, he added, that he was going 100 miles an hour in the middle of the summer, “but I’m on the ice at least feeling the puck and feeling the way I’m moving and how that translates to the ice. And I think that this also contributes to your cardio, your fitness very, very well, more applicable than probably anything you do off the ice.”
Another adjustment: quality over quantity.
“Especially in the offseason,” Tavares said, “I think you work on a lot of things and you do a lot of things, but you can also wear yourself out. Just trying to balance your workload and obviously being in great shape and feeling— you very fresh, but also to get the amount 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 to start the season.
The Leafs have lightened their load slightly. Tavares is averaging 17.5 minutes per game, which would be the lowest mark of his career. He’s down to an average of 12.5 minutes in five-on-five, another potential career low, though also fourth among Toronto forwards (behind the usual first, Austin Matthews, Mitch Marneri Michael Bunting).
Fewer minutes means Tavares should be fresher for his shifts. These changes tend to start more on offense than in the past. Tavares is getting nearly 27 draws in the offensive zone per 60 minutes early this season, a career high.
His faceoff start percentage in the offensive zone is currently 60 percent, the highest for his time with the Leafs.
Tavares’ numbers on the ice at five-on-five are worth keeping an eye on. In fact, they have been slightly worse than last season.
Only a whopping .935 save percentage when he’s been there has kept things from looking worse (although, again, Tavares has been a little unlucky offensively). It’s still unclear which wing set gives the Leafs the best chance to thrive when he’s on the ice.
Tavares ranks 37th among active players in games played.
Tavares intends to stay there as long as possible. Can he stick around for the life of his contract, which has two more years left on it before it expires in 2025? This is obviously his plan.
“My game is my own game and my own situation here, but I definitely think you look around, whether it’s other players, obviously in our league and our sport, and other athletes,” Tavares said of defy the aging curve. “And then (I look at) myself and my game and the things I’ve been through, my career and my evolution, and how I can continue to be at a high level and do everything I can to continue that way. Things evolve. Things that I have to change and adapt to. And then there are strengths and things that have brought me to this point as a player that really have to be part of who I am, that bring my identity as a player.”
(Top photo by Mark Blinch / NHLI via Getty Images)
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