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How will the Leafs Utilize John Tavares this Season?

Is he still a centre? A winger who takes faceoffs?

Remembering the pure ecstasy of the puck crossing the goal line fired from the hometown boy’s stick in game six overtime against the Tampa Bay Lightning, it becomes extremely difficult for a Leafs fan (me) to speak negatively about our captain. I mean, he got us to the second round for the first time in nearly twenty years.

The 32-year-old is just that, 32 years old and not getting any younger. He saw a sharp decline in ice time last season, averaging 17:39 per night from his 18:04 average last season.

Although the reduction in ice time may have been a good thing.

In terms of production, Tavares had his 5th best year of a fourteen-year career points-wise and his second-best season with the Leafs, scoring 36 goals and 80 points. He saw an increase in both points per game and goals per game, at exactly a point per game and 0.45 goals per game, up from 0.93 PPG and 0.34 GPG over the past two seasons.

With Tavares getting older, the game getting faster, and seeing as he actually plays better with reduced ice time, Sheldon Keefe may be open to trying a new approach with Tavares this coming season.

When the Leafs acquired Ryan O'Reilly last season, Sheldon Keefe made the decision to move Tavares to the left wing alongside O’Reilly, with Marner on the right side.

The move paid off immediately, as Tavares scored three goals and three assists in the next six games played on O’Reilly’s wing.

It was reported that during this time, Sheldon Keefe had informed Tavares that the move to the wing would be made permanent. Had O’Reilly not been injured in that sixth game against the Canucks, Tavares would have likely spent the remainder of the regular season in the second-line left-wing spot.

Now that O’Reilly is gone, it’ll be interesting to see just how permanent that move to the wing really is.

The Leafs have experimented with William Nylander at centre on more than a few occasions. None of them have really worked. Newcomer Max Domi has some experience playing centre, although that was mainly in Montreal, Keefe could experiment with a line of Tavares-Domi-Nylander if he wants to keep Tavares out of the centre-ice position in order to maximize his offensive output and lean on him less defensively.

Of course, being moved to the wing likely wouldn’t remove all of his responsibilities as a centre. Tavares ranked tenth in the entire NHL in faceoff percentage last season with an impressive 58.3 per cent. Sheldon Keefe leans on Tavares heavily in desperate situations, particularly when the Leafs need to win possession off the faceoff in a close game. In these situations, Tavares’ faceoff percentage is even higher, at nearly 60 per cent in 5-on-5 close and 5-on-5 tied situations.

Having Tavares play as a winger who takes faceoffs would be an interesting mix and a tough equation for opponents to solve.

We’ll have to wait until the start of the regular season to see, but it would appear as though John Tavares will be used in many different ways this season as Sheldon Keefe experiments with his new forward group.

Dave Felsbourg

Saturday, September 2, 2023

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