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Tavares likely to play center with Marner, Hyman on Maple Leafs

Babcock expects Matthews-Marleau-Nylander to be Toronto's other scoring line

by Mike Zeisberger @zeisberger / Staff Writer

TORONTO -- John Tavares likely will be flanked by a couple of local kids when he lines up for his hometown Toronto Maple Leafs at training camp in September.

Coach Mike Babcock's immediate plan is to have Tavares, 27, center a line with Mitchell Marner, 21, and Zach Hyman, 26. Hyman is a Toronto native; Marner is from Markham, north of the city; and Tavares was born in the western suburb of Mississauga.


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That particular setup leaves center Auston Matthews, 20, lining up between wings Patrick Marleau, 38, and William Nylander, 22.

"It could change, but that's the way I see it playing out right now," Babcock said Sunday. "It certainly gives us a lot of depth."

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

After signing Tavares to a seven-year, $77 million contract, the Maple Leafs are one of the most formidable teams up the middle in the NHL, Babcock said. Tavares (37 goals, 47 assists with the New York Islanders), Matthews (34 goals, 29 assists) and third-line center Nazem Kadri (32 goals, 23 assists) had a combined 202 points last season.

"[Marner] is so quick," Babcock said. "The other side of that is Nylander and Matthews play great together too. When you go through that, we're deep enough that [Kadri] is going to have good linemates too. … When you go up front, we're going to have lots of depth and lots of speed. We'll find real good mixes for those guys.

"We'll see how it goes. They're good players and they want to play with good players. And we want them to play with good players. We're fortunate we have a lot of good players."

Babcock said Tavares would replace forward James van Riemsdyk on the power play. Van Riemsdyk signed a five-year contract with the Philadelphia Flyers on Sunday.

"He'll fit right in there," Babcock said.

Marner and Matthews were among the players who contacted Tavares attempting to woo him to Toronto.

"Auston was very much on-side with this, so was [Marner], so were all the guys," Babcock said. "Our guys, I'm real proud of them, the way they reached out. If you're going to win championships, you need depth. You need lots of depth. That's what they want to do, they want to win. In order to win, you need quality players, and we're real fortunate to add John."

Video: Arthur Staple on Tavares' deal with the Maple Leafs

In the modern era of NHL free agency, which began in 1995, a No. 1 pick had never chosen to leave the team that drafted him to sign with another.

Tavares was the Islanders captain from 2013-18 but Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas said there is no rush to name a captain this season.

Toronto has not had a captain since defenseman Dion Phaneuf was traded to the Ottawa Senators on Feb. 9, 2016; he was captain since the 2010-11 season. Last season, forwards Tyler Bozak and Leo Komarov, and defenseman Morgan Rielly were alternate captains.

"In my experience with teams, when we've rushed decisions like that, it's turned out poorly for the organization," Dubas said. "I don't want to, especially here and now where we're at, rush a decision, especially before we see how the group fits together. We want to see how the group works together and we'll see where we're at.


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"If there's someone in our group that we feel is ready and the team is ready, we'll deal with it at that time. I know it's a popular question but it's not something we'll rush because it is an important distinction to be the captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs. We have some great leaders, John among them, and we'll see where it goes when it becomes apparent to us all."

Babcock has coached Tavares on two occasions with Canada.

Tavares tore the MCL and meniscus in his knee after four games at the 2014 Sochi Olympics and was lost for the remainder of the NHL season. His Canada teammates helped him onto the ice as he clutched his crutches to receive his gold medal.

Tavares also was a member of Team Canada, which won the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, when he had four points (one goal, three assists) in six games playing for Babcock.

"I've been with John twice," Babcock said. "He's a real good player. He's real serious about his craft. When you're bringing in a pro to a room that's as good as he is and is as serious at his craft, I think it's great for the other guys. Doesn't have to say much, just doing what he does. He makes the other guys around him better.

"No question his game suits what we want to do. He's high-end skill. He likes having the puck and wants the puck. But he can play without it too."

Tavares said his experience with Babcock will help make the adjustment period smoother.

"There's definitely a comfort level with Mike," he said.

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