Maple Leafs captain Tavares playing like a 'beast' in early going
The Maple Leafs practised at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas on Sunday.
Teammates are loving the way John Tavares is playing early this season.
"Hot," said winger Wayne Simmonds with a smile. "He's hot. Real hot. It's impressive."
"Just been a beast out there," centre Auston Matthews told reporters following Sunday's skate. "It's been a lot of fun to watch."
Tavares scored twice in Saturday's win in Winnipeg and is now up to seven points in six games. This despite missing most of training camp with an oblique injury.
"I'm just trying to be myself," the 32-year-old centre said, "be productive and consistent, continue to evolve my game like throughout my career."
Tavares suffered a concussion and knee injury during Game 1 of the 2021 playoff series against the Montreal Canadiens, which impacted his offseason training. He opened last season with three points in seven games as the Leafs stumbled to a 2-4-1 start.
This summer, Tavares had a normal training block and focused on becoming lighter on his feet.
"This offseason was really good for him," said coach Sheldon Keefe. "He was healthy all the way through it. He could really push and look to improve his game."
Tavares is averaging four shots per outing so far, which is up from three last season.
"He looks really comfortable with the puck, without the puck," Keefe noted. "Defensively, he's been really good. I've liked a lot of things about his game and his line for that matter. Real positive sign."
The play of Tavares has helped the team navigate an up-and-down start. Tension had spiked following lacklust losses to the Montreal Canadiens and Arizona Coyotes, but the Leafs captain remained calm.
"He's Mr. Steady," Simmonds said. "He's always even keel. He's always doing the right things. He's a guy who leads by example and that's the reason why he's our captain. He's been unbelievable to start the year."
Tavares has hit the scoresheet in all but one game so far.
Both Tavares goals on Saturday came on the power play as Toronto's top unit got back on track. The Leafs converted on just one of eight opportunities against the Dallas Stars on Thursday with the goal coming from the second unit. That performance came on the heels of a 1/5 outing against the Coyotes on Monday.
"We were a little more direct and just competing hard and winning pucks back," Tavares said. "Second and third opportunities allow us to break them down. Just being direct, taking what's there and attacking the net and letting our skill-sets come out that way instead of trying to be set and looking for certain options all the time."
"There are a lot of power plays in the league that their structure is very obvious," Keefe said, "and you can see it and a lot of their goals look the same. I don't think that’s the case with our group necessarily."
In the moments before the first man-advantage marker, Matthews won a battle to keep the puck in before getting it to William Nylander in the slot. Nylander then made a nifty pass to Tavares, who finished from his office in front. The second goal was a Tavares tip off of a Matthews shot from the point.
"You work on the stuff in practice, but in the end it's kind of just instinct and trying to read off each other out there and communicating and making the right plays," Matthews said.
Matthews finished Saturday's game with three assists and four shots on net, but the reigning Rocket Richard Trophy winner remains stuck on one goal this season.
"Auston had 13 shot attempts or something crazy," Keefe pointed out. "You can tell he is right there and ready to break out."
Matthews led all forwards in takeaways last season (3.66 per 60 minutes) while linemate Mitch Marner came in fourth (2.87). So far this season the numbers have dipped ever so slightly in that department with Matthews at 3.22 and Marner at 2.68, which may explain why the offence hasn't quite flowed yet despite Toronto's top line controlling much of the possession.
"Last night was probably the best they've been all season in that regard," Keefe said of the takeaway talent. "It's sometimes challenging when you have the puck on your stick a lot. Other teams can defend that a little bit easier, because they just have to defend the slot area. At times when there's a little more back and forth the game opens up a little bit more for those guys."
Matthews also started last season with one goal in his first six games and, unsurprisingly, isn't too worried about the lack of lamp lighting so far.
"Offensively, especially last night, we did a lot of really good things and kind of finding our rhythm a bit," he said. "We want to continue to progress and continue to elevate our game."
Matthews has scored in three of his four games in Las Vegas with the only goose egg coming in the final game of the Mike Babcock era in 2019.
Simmonds and Kyle Clifford assisted on the game-winning goal in their season debuts and will remain in the lineup on Monday.
"Those guys did a good job and made their presence felt," Keefe told reporters on Sunday. "All the sudden they have a good night and they're getting some traction and you see the way their teammates are responding to them and you think there's reason to keep that going and continue to build on that."
Simmonds admits he wasn't sure he'd wear the Leafs sweater again after clearing waivers following training camp.
"It always runs through your mind, but I know I still have some juice left in the tank," the 34-year-old winger said. "The last two, three weeks have been a long haul for me, but it's just staying patient and willing to do whatever it takes to help the guys out. I'm here for the boys and I'll always be here for these guys. I love these guys."
The Scarborough, Ont. native is determined to continue his chase for an elusive Stanley Cup with his hometown team.
"We have such a great group," Simmonds said. "From Day 1, I was accepted immediately and when that happens and you have such great group camaraderie, for me, late in my career, it's something that you cherish and don't take for granted."
Simmonds made a between-the-legs, backhand pass to set up Kampf for the key goal in Winnipeg.
"He's got tremendous hands and uses his body so well around the net," said Tavares. "He's done that his whole career."
Simmonds and Clifford provided a physical presence, but it was actually Morgan Rielly who dropped the gloves on Saturday night. The smooth-skating defenceman immediately confronted Josh Morrissey after the Jets defenceman lay a questionable hit on 21-year-old Leafs forward Nick Robertson.
"The puck wasn't there and he came in pretty hot," said Tavares. "Good response from the group. Speaks to Mo's character and not surprising the way he carries himself and leads for our group. After that, we stayed really calm and composed as, obviously, the temperature of the game really went up. Scrums were frequent and, you know, we're there standing up for one other, protecting our net, but at the same time being composed on the power play."
It was Rielly's third fight in the NHL.
"Our sport calls for different things at different times," said Keefe. "Sometimes you need players to step out of character a little bit. Rielly's moment was that he had to step up for a teammate and address that. David Kampf, Simmonds and Clifford scored the game-winning goal. That is just the way the sport is: You need different people to step up at different times."
There have been questions about Toronto's ability to handle the moments when games get hot, but Rielly insists that's not a talking point among the players.
"I don't think there's ever been any doubt about our group," the longest-serving Leaf said. "Maybe you guys have [doubts], but within this locker room there's never been a question of our group being together and having that bond. So, I don't really think anything of it."
Ilya Samsonov stopped 30 of 31 shots to improve to 4-0-0 with the Leafs.
"The confidence just continues to grow," Tavares observed, "the comfort level, getting a good feel for the structure that we play with and how he can read off that and use his ability and strengths and get into a rhythm seeing the puck. Like any player, when you start playing and get rolling and good things are happening you really start to get a good eye and good feel for things and you can kind of see that coming for him."
"He was outstanding," said Rielly. "If he's back there playing that way it gives the team a lot of confidence."
Asked about the best part of Saturday's win, Samsonov smiled.
"Win," he said. "Easy choice."
The 25-year-old has endeared himself to teammates with both his play and his personality.
"He is always smiling," noted winger Michael Bunting. "He's always in a good mood."
"He's kind of a goofball," said defenceman Justin Holl. "He's fun in the sewer-ball arena before the games. He's always messing around. It's good energy."
Lines at Sunday's practice:
Bunting - Matthews - Marner
Robertson - Tavares - Nylander
Engvall - Kerfoot - Jarnkrok
Clifford - Kampf - Simmonds
Malgin, Aston-Reese, Aube-Kubel
Rielly - Brodie
Sandin - Holl
Giordano - Mete