John Tavares looked at the rafters, he slammed his stick, he shook his head as he came up empty — again — in Columbus.
It’s been 10 games since the Maple Leafs captain scored a goal. That’s his longest drought from him as a Maple Leaf. His longest such drought since 2011-12. And an eternity for a player who is supposed to dominate.
Tavares’s game against Columbus was his best during that stretch. Five shots, four of them at 5-on-5, and two of them of the in-close, high-danger variety. He won more faceoffs than he lost (10-9), earned a takeaway, delivered a hit that resulted in a play for his team, and carried possession.
But he still didn’t score. Nor did his linemates of his, William Nylander and Alex Kerfoot.
More often than not the three have been absent from the scoresheet through the month of February, a shadow of the unit that largely carried the team through the early part of the season.
Such is the respect coach Sheldon Keefe has for Tavares that he won’t criticize him by name. He will say things like “that line” needs to get better.
“I thought they were better,” Keefe said following Tuesday’s 4-3 overtime loss in Columbus. “My focus for them was how they played defensively. The offensive stuff is going to come. My focus was how they defended, and I thought they did a good job as a line in that sense.
“They played hard, they played with lots of pace. It’s a loud building, lots of energy in the game. And I was happy with how that line did. They had looks, they had opportunities. Maybe not as much as they or I would like, but those are going to come for them as long as they continue to have a good process with how they play.”
The line had been more or less flying until the COVID break. Tavares was scoring, Nylander was being praised for his defensive work, and Kerfoot was everyone’s hero as the Swiss Army knife of the team, thriving as the left-winger on the line. Through the first 32 games, Nylander led the Leafs in scoring (35 points) while Tavares and Auston Matthews each had 34.
But the line had a very bad night in Colorado on Jan. 8, and terrible night the next game in Vegas on Jan. 11, and things haven’t been right since. Tavares’s line — and it hasn’t always been both Nylander and Kerfoot — has been out-possessed, outshot and outscored (20-9) in nine of its last 18 games in 5-on-5 situations. Tavares is minus-12 since Jan. 8.
That might be OK for a .500 team, or an average player. But not for Tavares, in the midst of a seven-year, $77 million contract that makes him — from his $11 million cap-hit perspective — tied with Drew Doughty as the fifth most expensive player in the NHL.
And that has caused some worry, given the team’s high-priced players over 30 — with the injured Jake Muzzin the other one — underperforming. Those who suggested the Leafs would regret the length of Tavares’s deal are starting to have their voices heard.
Tavares, 31, played a season-low 15:04 against Montreal, and the fear is he has begun the downward slide that so many other athletes experience after 30.
This is Tavares’s longest goal-less drought since he went 11 straight games without a goal to finish the 2011-12 season. He went 17 straight games without a goal in his rookie season, and 13 without a goal in the early part of the 2011-12 season.
The line simply seems out of sync. For example, Tavares will often retrieve a puck along the boards and send it a few feet behind him. Matthews will do this too, with Mitch Marner in the vicinity to pick it up. But when Tavares has done it, neither Nylander nor Kerfoot were anywhere in the vicinity. Tavares’s hard-won puck battle goes for naught, or less than naught, ending up on the opposition stick with the play going the other way. Pittsburgh and St. Louis each got scoring chances from it in recent games.
For now, it is simply a slump. All players go through them. Since Tavares entered the league in 2009, his 381 goals from him is third only to Alex Ovechkin (542) and Steve Stamkos (439). And his 866 points from him places him sixth in the NHL.
But the Leafs — who have lost five of their last seven — need Tavares, and for that matter Nylander, to snap out of it.
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