Let’s face it. Toronto is the media capital of the hockey world. The Toronto Maple Leafs have a large national and international following. Despite 50 seasons without a Stanley Cup, their name is still magical throughout the hockey world. Members of the Toronto media, underneath their surface cynicism, definitely want the Leafs to do well and to have a roster and front office full of celebrities who their audience wants to know about on a daily basis.
On July 1, the Leafs signed John Tavares. In typical Toronto overkill, it was referred to as “the greatest free-agent signing of all-time.” Tavares was hailed as the savior of the franchise, the biggest piece in the puzzle of a Stanley Cup champion. He would become the focal point of the team and take the pressure off the young stars, especially Auston Matthews. The Leafs’ brain trust gave Tavares first-line status since the start of the season by virtue of his pairing with star winger Mitch Marner. And Tavares has delivered. He is without doubt a quality first-line center in the NHL. He may be a great candidate to be captain of a Stanley Cup champion in the immediate future. However, he is not the best center on the Maple Leafs. When you put him beside Matthews, the comparison is not even close.
Tavares and Matthews have both had splendid careers. They excelled on their amateur teams and at the under-18s and world juniors. Matthews also starred playing pro in Switzerland prior to being drafted. Both have been prolific scorers at the World Championship and both performed well at the 2016 World Cup. Tavares, who was injured in his only Olympic experience, is seven years older than Matthews. His career has been longer. That’s the only difference so far.
This is an easy comparison. Both players are considered first-line centers for a Stanley Cup contender. They are first and foremost looked upon to generate offense. Both can score goals and make plays at an elite level. Both will be asked to assume heavy workloads, kill penalties if necessary and take important faceoffs. Both will be expected to make their teammates better. In effect, both players will be asked to perform like the best player on the team.
If this category was close at one time, it is no longer. Matthews has gone from a really good shooter to a physical marvel. Only Alex Ovechkin and Patrik Laine are in his category, and Matthews may be the best in the league at quickly converting a pass that he receives while off-balance into a lethal shot under the crossbar. His playmaking skills are also elite. His off-balance lead pass to give Kasperi Kapanen a breakaway against Chicago in mid-October could only be accomplished by the best players in the league. Tavares has excellent vision and almost always attempts the correct play. He does not have the same strength on his skates as Matthews and is unable to make the same types of plays while off-balance. Tavares is a quick, accurate shooter with great hands around the net, but there is nothing exceptional about his shot.
Once we consider the physical attributes of the two players, the close comparison ends. Tavares is an average skater who labors noticeably when he’s fatigued. In the Leafs’ road win over Washington in mid-October, there were a couple of lengthy shifts where he actually looked dysfunctional. Matthews is a beautiful natural skater who is quicker and faster than Tavares and maintains his stride much better when tired. Matthews is also stronger on his feet and able to drive to the front of the net and remain there more effectively than Tavares can.
I have nothing bad to say about Matthews in this area. My only concern was the second half of last season and the playoffs when he appeared to be playing without emotion. We know now he was playing injured and that may have been a big factor in his demeanor. This season, the emotion and passion have returned. This is an area where Tavares is elite. In his draft interviews, I was as impressed by him as I have ever been by a player. His teammates from junior to the NHL speak glowingly of him. Officials with Team Canada raved about him. He is an exceptional player and person in all intangible categories.
With the elimination of “cheating” on faceoffs, raw physical strength has become crucial. Both players were very average on faceoffs in their rookie seasons. Like Tavares, Matthews improved considerably in his sophomore campaign. Matthews last season was more effective than Tavares on faceoffs and, during an early four-game road trip this season, was was used consistently to win defensive-zone draws. Both of them have been effective this season on draws. There is a big difference in other areas governed by strength. Tavares bases his offensive game on quick puck movement, and his defensive game is based on positioning and persistence. Matthews can control the puck for long periods of time with his size and strength. Defensively, he has been able to strip opponents of the puck with ease, amassing a remarkable number of takeaways.
DANGER TO OPPOSITION
Both chicago and washington played their top lines and best defensemen against the Matthews line when they faced Toronto this season. I prefer the judgment of the opposing teams to the judgment of the media on this question.
Signing Tavares as a free agent was a wise move by the Leafs. They got a first-line center without giving up anything. He can serve as a mentor to Matthews and provide the Leafs with a 1-2 center combination that they hope will have the success of Crosby-Malkin, Sakic-Forsberg and even Gretzky-Messier. Tavares is skilled, smart and competitive, but he’s an average skater. To use the modern lingo, Matthews is a “beast.” He’s strong as an ox and a powerful skater. He has top-end hockey sense and has become a shooter in the Ovechkin/Laine category as the NHL’s best. Matthews can hold on to the puck for long stretches and retrieve it almost effortlessly from the opposition. Tavares has earned a spot in the second tier of top NHL centers. If you were picking one player to take a run at the Stanley Cup this season, I believe Connor McDavid would be the first choice and Sidney Crosby the second. After that Matthews could very well be the next player picked. He’s that good. Matthews is clearly the Leafs’ best center. He’s No. 1.
Tom Thompson has been an NHL scout/director/assistant GM since 1985.