Johnny is our leader. How Leafs captain John Tavares rallied his troops after a playoff disappointment and made peace with not being the star

There’s a poignant moment in Amazon’s behind-the-scenes “All or Nothing” series when John Tavares, hockey star and captain of the Maple Leafs, chats with his uncle John Tavares, the greatest lacrosse player he has ever seen.

The oldest of the Tavares played at an elite level well into his 40s, winning championships and MVP trophies at all levels. He was instructing his nephew on what to expect when he turns 30.

“There are stages in a long race,” he said. “The first stage is that you are enthusiastic, and just go, go, go. And then you get comfortable and get a little bit old, and if you don’t score in two or three games, you’re in the worst crash ever. But if you are confident, you can play forever.

“The key is to understand that you don’t have to be number one all the time, because there comes a time when everything is going to end. And I see that this is happening to you in your career. If they doubt you a little, that plays a lot with your mind. If you doubt me, I will work harder and prove you wrong. “

The Leafs captain took it seriously.

“I leaned on him for a lot of things at different times in my life,” said the 31-year-old NHL player. “And certainly now I can learn a lot from him and his ability to keep his level of play at a high level until 30 and still be extremely productive, and still be one of the best players in the world.”

There comes a point in the career of every great athlete when the climb to peak performance ends and the descent begins. The goal is to stay on top as long as possible.

Heading into the midseason of a seven-year, $ 77 million (US) contract, this is where Tavares finds himself.

It has always been the star. From his teens in his third year with the Oshawa Generals, playing a year younger than most due to his exceptional ability, to his days with the New York Islanders, teams have been built around him.

These sheets are not. While Tavares is a central player, the team relies more on Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner.

Leafs captain John Tavares arrived at training camp ready to roll after his postseason ended prematurely with a concussion and knee injury.

“You have to adapt as things change around you,” Tavares said. “Obviously, we see the youth and the kind of talent and players that are to come, whether it’s within our team, in the league, and how you have to keep seeing where the game is going, seeing where your own personal game is going. And stick with that, so you can be consistent and play at a high level. “

Tavares has his skeptics in Toronto, in large part due to the size of his contract, saying that it is not worth the money, or that the Leafs will regret the deal in later years.

But it has provided solid value. Your score is consistent. He has produced points at a higher rate with the Leafs (0.99 per game) than in nine years with the Islanders (0.93). And if he hadn’t received a knee from Corey Perry to the head in the first period of the first playoff game against Montreal in the spring, the outcome could have been quite different.

After that disappointing and painful ending, Tavares still took it upon himself to rally the troops and talk about the season at his Muskoka cabin for the summer.

“Johnny is our leader,” said 33-year-old winger Wayne Simmonds, heading into his second season in Toronto. “He is the best professional. He had a lot of boys in his cabin. We went there, we trained, we had the opportunity to spend time together. Your mind is in the right place.

“We had a great dialogue with each other. We kept it real. We had to tackle what happened last year head-on, and we don’t hide from it. It is for us to learn and improve and mature as a team. “

The move impressed coach Sheldon Keefe, but it didn’t really surprise him.

“The response was excellent,” Keefe said. “It was not just time to relax in the water. They worked, skated and trained. It was a meaningful journey. John’s initiative to do so speaks to his leadership. It was a very positive step for us ”.

It’s hard to see Tavares improve his game at age 31. He probably won’t score 50 goals or get 100 points. But it’s easy to see him stuck in his career stalemate for a while, where 40 goals a year and a point-per-game rate are reasonable expectations.

He seems to be at peace with his role.

“You evolve as a player, as an athlete. Things change, either with your game or with your environment. Knowing the circumstances here, the type of players we have here, I don’t have to be as catalytic as before.

“The way Auston is gaining ground here, what he’s doing offensively, and Mitch is quite remarkable. Without a doubt, I still want to play at an extremely high level and compete to be one of the best players in the game, and make a difference every night. But the way you do it and the way you are impacting things or how you constantly try to do it, can change over time.

“And that’s what I’m working on.”

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