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Kristen Shilton

TSN Toronto Maple Leafs Reporter

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TORONTO — John Tavares might need a word with William Nylander.

The Maple Leafs’ captain has been on a tear recently, racking up 18 points (seven goals, 11 assists) in his last 14 games. Nylander’s been his linemate for most of the year, and theorized last week that Tavares’ surge could be attributed to the new sticks he’d been trying out. 

That public reveal didn’t go without notice from Tavares.

“I guess Willy's been letting out some of my secrets,” Tavares joked with reporters on a post-practice Zoom call Sunday. “I’ve used the same curve [on my stick] since minor hockey, so I just felt it was time to play around with some things, try something out and something new. I’ve just been getting more and more comfortable with it. And then I got my [other stick] specs in with the curve, so I got it the way you like your stick to feel.”

This has been a season of change for Tavares, in more ways than just equipment. While he’s now one of the Leafs’ most consistently productive forwards, Tavares first had to embrace the new role being asked of him. 

Back in the summer, coach Sheldon Keefe approached Tavares with a specific issue. Toronto had just been eliminated by Columbus in five games from the qualifying round of the NHL’s postseason tournament, and it was clear the club was at a crossroads. Their defensive effort had to improve in the coming season, and Keefe expected Tavares to lead the way. 

Toronto’s captain took the message to heart, and cultivated a defence-first mentality. Initially that switch impacted his offensive output, and much was made early in the season of Tavares’ two even-strength goals in his first 25 games. 

It was a sacrifice Tavares was willing to make.

“Last year we were very up and down and weren't good enough away from the puck to have the type of success that we wanted to have,” Tavares said. “And I think [Keefe] really challenged me, as the captain and a key member of the group, to really set the right example from that aspect. It's always challenging [when you don’t score], but you really just try to not focus on the results, even though sometimes you'd like to see it pay off more often or sooner. It’s just continuing to stick with that.”

As Tavares’ defensive game grew, the Leafs’ other stars - namely Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner - were rising into the stratosphere. 

In that 25-game span to start the year where Tavares notched 12 points at 5-on-5, Matthews and Marner combined for 44. But Tavares was eventually able to strike the right balance. 

Over 27 games since, he’s got 22 points at even-strength. And on the season, Tavares has excelled in the face-off dot at 55.7 per cent (ahead of Matthews at 51.8 per cent) while also boasting the second-most takeaways on the team (27) and the most penalties drawn (11).

While in some ways Tavares might be taking a backseat to the exceptional Matthews-Marner tandem, he’s also emerging as a more well-rounded player than before. 

“We continue to see the emergence of what Auston and Mitchy are doing and how dominant they've become, [so I knew] that things might change a little bit for me,” he said. “Not in a negative way, but just in certain aspects of what your role looks like and how that's being defined. I continue to find that balance and be a leader in that aspect of being really good in all areas of the ice. [Keefe and I] have been on the same page in that way and he's communicated that really well.”

Tavares pointed out it hasn’t just been him paying more attention to the defensive side, but the whole team. Toronto is averaging the seventh-fewest shots-against in the NHL this season (28.2 per game) and the eighth-fewest goals-against (2.61 per game). 

Comparatively, the Leafs were sixth in the league in goals-against last season (3.17 per game) and 13th in the shots-against (31.9 per game).

Seeing the Leafs’ play tighter in their own end was a top priority for Keefe, and having Tavares on board has made all the difference. 

“The growth of our team, both with and without the puck in terms of responsibility, and consistency, I think John really embodies that,” Keefe said. “What's remained consistent for me is the fact that the puck rarely goes in our net when he's out there. He's doing a really good job of not giving up chances against, managing the game really well. And now he's starting to produce. It’s been great to see that, but the foundation defensively has been right there from day one and that's what we needed as a team.”

Tavares has no intention of letting up now, at either end of the ice. Armed with his new sticks and brimming with confidence, the veteran is ready to see what this next chapter of the season has in store for him and the Leafs. 

“I want to be counted on in all situations,” he said. “I’ve been known for producing offence and that has been a major part of my game ever since I really started playing hockey so I'm continuing to improve and adapt that as I go. But we've got such a talented group here, and obviously understanding my role and how that fits in and making sure I'm playing the way we want to play and then obviously finding my strengths through that [is key]."