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A Healthy John Tavares is an X-Factor on a Maple Leafs Team Filled With Many

Everyone knows John Tavares is an import part of the Toronto Maple Leafs. But entering this season healthy and hungry, the captain may just be more crucial than ever.
John Tavares

Mark Giordano spoke for all Maple Leafs players on Thursday morning when asked about the importance of John Tavares suiting up for the club's home opener in Montreal the night before. 

"We're just really happy to have him back," the veteran defender said of his captain. 

"He's such an important part of the team."

It wasn't always a given, after all. 

Coming off his first fully healthy summer in years, Tavares ran into the dreaded injury bug almost immediately in training camp, suffering a pesky oblique injury during the pre-season that was initially expected to rob the Maple Leafs of their captain for the first week of the season and throw a wrench into the team's early roster plans. With the Leafs sitting four dollars under the salary cap ceiling, losing Tavares for such an awkward amount of time around opening day is precisely the kind of hiccup that can throw a club off its rocker. 

Not on Tavares' watch, though. The 32-year-old fought his way back through early October to beat his recovery timeline handily and assume his normal top-six center spot on opening night, proceeding to assist on two of the Maple Leafs' three goals in their eventual loss to the Canadiens. 

The result may have been disappointing, but Tavares certainly wasn't. 

In a little over 12 minutes at even strength – the eight total power plays between the two sides limited everyone's five-on-five ice time – Tavares generated a whopping 64.22 percent share of the expected goals and 52.63 percent of the scoring chances during his usage, tilting the ice dramatically in Toronto's favor whenever he was on it despite drawing some of the toughest matchups his opponents had to offer. 

This is what the Maple Leafs envisioned when signing Tavares back in July 2019. It's not a stretch to suggest that an $11 million center is a vital component of his team's success. But Tavares' value to the Leafs often gets drowned out in the constant noise surrounding the club on a day-to-day basis. A fully unleashed version of the star center is a game-changer to Toronto's coaching staff, affording them a luxury a with which they can use to grab hold of the matchup game regardless of opponent.  

And, for the first time in quite a while, that version of Tavares is exactly what they're getting. 

"I didn't really have to hit the checkmarks," explained Tavares of his 2022 off-season compared to the year before, which was spent recovering from the head injury he suffered during the first game of the Maple Leafs' 2021 opening round playoff series versus those same Habs. 

"There was obviously none of that going into this off-season. And being relatively healthy, after healing up some of the bumps and bruises you get over the year, it's all focused on the game and how I can get better and improve. Not just on how I'm feeling." 

All told, the trio of Tavares, William Nylander, and Denis Malgin were the Maple Leafs' best on Wednesday night, generating 70.86 percent of the expected goals during their five-on-five deployment without allowing a goal against. Their xG total relative to Toronto's other three lines topped out as the highest on the team, with the threesome's high-danger chances drawing in line with that of the Auston Matthews-led top unit.

The Maple Leafs have technically had the ability to throw out one $11 million center after another on paper ever since Matthews' own extension kicked in back in 2019-20. But this season appears to be the first time they can truly do it in the tangible sense since Tavares' debut in blue and white. Remember, Tavares' sophomore season as a Leaf coincided with the league-wide shutdown amid COVID-19, followed up by the truncated 56-game schedule played without fans, and was then followed again by a 2021-22 season that saw Tavares work his way back from his recovery-focused offseason and battle numerous nagging injuries, as well. 

This year appears to have finally brought a sense of normalcy back for the Leafs' captain. And with the stakes set as high as humanly possible, it could not have come at a better time. 

"I mean, it's huge," explained William Nylander of Tavares' return on Wednesday. 

"He came in and had a couple of nice plays and helped us score some key goals. So, it's nice to see him back and helping us work." 

"Obviously, he plays such a huge role on our team," added Giordano. 

"Off the ice, of course. But on the ice, he's just that presence for us. And so to have him in the lineup is key." 

Opening night may not have been the start the Maple Leafs themselves were looking for, but it didn't come without silver linings. Perhaps the shiniest of them is the resurgence of their leader – the presence the entire team relies on so much. And if his performance is any indication of what's to come, Tavares is about to become even more important to the success of his hometown club in the months ahead. 

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