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Tavares gives Maple Leafs center combination similar to Penguins'

Toronto hopes free agent addition, Matthews can produce like Crosby, Malkin

by Rob Vollman / NHL.com Correspondent

The arrival of John Tavares could be the addition that makes the Toronto Maple Leafs a legitimate threat for the Stanley Cup.

Tavares, 27, joined the Maple Leafs on Sunday as the biggest catch of the NHL free agent market.

Joining Auston Matthews, 20, at center for the Maple Leafs, Tavares gives Toronto a two-deep center rotation that closely resembles the tandem of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

 

[RELATED: How Maple Leafs landed Tavares | Keon: Tavares will leaf Leafs by example]

 

Since Crosby and Malkin joined forces for the 2006-07 season, the Penguins have been a powerhouse in the Eastern Conference, winning the Stanley Cup three times, including back-to-back titles in 2015-16 and 2016-17. Either Crosby or Malkin has won the scoring title in four of the past 12 seasons.

Have the Maple Leafs set themselves up to re-create Pittsburgh's success with the addition of Tavares, who had been the No. 1 center with the New York Islanders?

Since 2006-07, Crosby and Malkin have combined for an average total of 162 points per season. In 2017-18, Matthews scored 63 points (34 goals, 29 assists) in 62 games and Tavares scored 84 points (37 goals, 47 assists) in 82 games for a combined total of 147 points, a difference of 15 points.

Proper deployment could be critical to matching Pittsburgh's success. The best option could be for Toronto to emulate the Penguins, who at even strength use Malkin primarily in the offensive zone with a focus on scoring. Crosby plays big minutes against top opponents in more balanced usage.

Since 2009-10, Malkin's zone-start percentage of 61.97 percent is No. 11 among forwards to play at least 100 games, and Crosby's average of 16:18 even-strength minutes per game is No. 7.

Video: John Tavares on his new deal with the Maple Leafs

It's uncertain which role would be assigned to Tavares if the Maple Leafs use a similar deployment. Tavares was used in the Malkin role with the Islanders. His zone-start percentage of 59.86 is No. 17 among forwards who have played at least 100 games since 2009-10, his rookie season. His NHL career high in points with that usage is 86 points in 2014-15.

Tavares has solid shot-based metrics, and is capable of handling big minutes in a Crosby role against top opponents.

Since 2009-10, Tavares' career average of 16:09 even-strength minutes per game is No. 9 among NHL forwards. In that time, the Islanders have outshot opponents 10,230-9,866 in 5-on-5 shot attempts with Tavares on the ice, for an SAT percentage of 50.91 percent. That's up 3.38 percent from their 47.53 SAT percentage when he wasn't on the ice.

Playing Tavares in the more-demanding Crosby role would free up Matthews to focus on scoring. During the past two seasons, Matthews has averaged 2.63 points per 60 minutes at even strength, which is better than Tavares (2.33).

Regardless of role, Tavares should boost the scoring rates of his linemates, most likely Mitchell Marner and Patrick Marleau.

Islanders forward Josh Bailey, playing primarily with Tavares during the past two seasons, scored an average of 2.15 even-strength points per 60 minutes. In the two seasons before that, playing on a different line, Bailey was at 1.77 even-strength points per 60 minutes. Similarly, Anders Lee improved by 0.29 points per 60 minutes, from 1.81 to 2.10.

Video: Rosen and Tanguay take a look at the Tavares decision

The Maple Leafs have been among the highest-scoring teams in the NHL the past two seasons. Last season, the Maple Leafs scored 187 goals at 5-on-5, which ranked second to the Tampa Bay Lightning, 196, and were 10 more than the third-place Islanders (177).

The Maple Leafs have lost two offensive players to free agency. Forward Tyler Bozak joined the St. Louis Blues and forward James van Riemsdyk signed with the Philadelphia Flyers. That is a loss of 64 even-strength points (33 goals, 31 assists). 

Tavares scored 51 even-strength points (23 goals, 28 assists) in 82 games for the Islanders in 2017-18.

On the power play, the departure of Bozak and van Riemsdyk creates an absence of a combined 33 points (14 goals, 19 assists). Tavares scored 30 power-play points (12 goals, 18 assists) last season.

In man-advantage situations, Tavares and Matthews could play together to form one of the NHL's best power-play units, as is the case in Pittsburgh with Crosby and Malkin.

In 2017-18, the Penguins were first with a power play percentage of 26.2 percent, and the Maple Leafs were second (25.0 percent). The Islanders were sixth (23.2 percent).

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