TORONTO – After the final whistle had blown on the Maple Leafs’ Friday afternoon practice and he’d led teammates in a stretch, John Tavares went back to work firing one-timers from assistant coach Paul McFarland into an empty net.
It’s not unusual to see the Leafs' captain linger on the ice, but with only three goals in his past 10 games, Tavares is especially focused on increasing his offensive output – sooner rather than later.
“Certainly I'd like to be more productive and continue to raise my game,” Tavares said on Friday. “I think coming off the [All-Star] break, I haven't maybe been quite as sharp as I'd like to be. I feel like at times I've done a lot of good things in good stretches and just haven't been able to finish plays off and be rewarded. But [I want to] continue to just find a level I can be consistent at in all areas.”
It’s consistency that has eluded Tavares most this season, despite his solid offensive totals. Tavares has pumped out 41 points (18 goals, 23 assists) over 44 games, but his production has slowed since the calendar turned to 2020, with points in just three of his past nine games (three goals, three assists).
“Sometimes it's the way it goes,” Tavares shrugged. “Sometimes it's just a bounce here or there, just finishing off some plays, so it's just staying with it. Every day is a new day; you start again and go to work and just try to find ways to get better and adapt your game and overcome whatever the challenges are and look forward to the next opportunity.”
There have been more difficulties for Tavares to overcome this season compared to a year ago, when he set career-high totals in points (88) and goals (47). Tavares accomplished that with linemates Zach Hyman and Mitch Marner stapled to his side, but head coach Sheldon Keefe has had Tavares playing with a number of different wingers this year, most recently Alex Kerfoot and William Nylander.
Tavares also missed seven games earlier in the campaign with a broken finger, which Keefe said “disrupted his rhythm.”
“We're looking at different things with him,” Keefe explained of Tavares. “I think he obviously had great production last year and he's the type of player that would expect that would continue, but it doesn't always work that way. The reality is, there is only one puck.”
When Toronto has had possession lately, it’s been the players around Tavares finding the back of the net most often. Through the Leafs’ last 10 games, Marner has 13 points, Auston Matthews has 12, and Nylander has 11, but playing with the red-hot Swedish winger hasn’t helped Tavares hit mesh any more often himself.
That depth of scoring is why Keefe said focusing on any one player’s contributions doesn’t feel appropriate, especially where Tavares is concerned.
“We're trying to establish purpose with our play and how we play – both offensively and defensively – and he's leading the way for us in a lot of regards there,” Keefe said. “At six-on-five [in Dallas on Wednesday], he won two massive faceoffs for us late in the game. [Yes], he wants to produce more, and we'd like him to find a way to get some of those chances to fall in because he is still getting a number of chances. But he does a lot of really good things for our team and sets us up for success with his approach every single day and we need that to continue.”
Tavares’ ability to remain steadfast in his preparation, regardless of how it translates to the scoresheet, is part of what Kerfoot has enjoyed most about playing with the 29-year-old, noting he was surprised by how level-headed Tavares can stay under any circumstance.
“He knows that there's stretches where you're not going to be as good,” Kerfoot said. “I think the one thing that he does probably better than anyone is that it doesn't change what he's going to do the next day; he still comes into the rink and works as hard as he can. That routine and mentality just sets the tone for our team, even if he may be going through a tough stretch offensively.”
Marner balks at the idea of Tavares having been curtailed offensively at all, citing the breadth of his work this season as reason to not overanalyze the last couple of weeks.
“He’s still creating near a point a game; he’s done great, I think still, on the ice,” Marner said. “He means a lot to this locker room. We stick together in here. This place can get a little crazy and will turn on people real quick, and we know that so we stay close with each other and we don’t let anything bother us.”
The fact Toronto has put together consecutive victories out of the All-Star break also helps keep pressure off Tavares to immediately remedy his streaky scoring. And while there may only be one puck to go around for the Leafs, Keefe is confident it's Tavares who will be leading the charge for Toronto's offence soon enough.
“It’s going to hit a point here where some of our other guys will cool off, and then [Tavares will] heat up,” Keefe said. “I think that's just the way it'll work.”