Winning, Toronto Maple Leafs legend Dave Keon says, is a process. And the Hockey Hall of Fame center, who in 2016 was voted the greatest player in Maple Leafs history, believes that Toronto's addition of high-profile free agent John Tavares is a strong, bold step on the road to even better things.
"He's going to bring a lot of experience," Keon said of Tavares, who signed a seven-year, $77 million contract with the Maple Leafs on Sunday, arriving in Toronto a veteran of 669 regular-season and 24 Stanley Cup Playoff games, all with the New York Islanders, from 2009-18. "He's had success. Hopefully this takes (the Maple Leafs) to the next step.
"For the Leafs the next step is winning a playoff series. They were in the playoffs this past season (a seven-game loss to the Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference First Round), and the year before (a six-game loss to the Washington Capitals in the first round). They're half a step away, if you want, from going to the next level. But it's still a process. You have to go out and do it. Adding Tavares gives them a better chance of doing that."
Keon, 78, won the Stanley Cup with the Maple Leafs in 1962, 1963, 1964 and 1967, and played 1,062 games for Toronto in 15 seasons (1960-75). One of the best checking forwards of his era, he was the 5-foot-9, 165-pound heart and soul of his teams. But as intense as he was, Keon played within the rules, accumulating 117 penalty minutes in 18 seasons with the Maple Leafs and Hartford Whalers. He played with the Whalers from 1979-82, following five seasons in the World Hockey Association.
Captain of the Maple Leafs from 1969-70 through 1974-75, Keon led not with fire and brimstone speeches, but by example. He believes Tavares won't change his style of play because he changed addresses.
"When John comes in he'll just try to do the things he's always done," Keon said. "I don't think you say all of a sudden that he's going to be the leader of the team. What he's going to do is try to play as well as he can, and if he accomplishes that I think the other players will see that as making a big contribution and they'll try to emulate that. That's what his leadership will be, his play, not what he says. It will be mostly how he does on the ice, what he does and how he does it. Those will be the things that will be really important.
"As far as his being named captain, it may happen. But there's going to be enough pressure on him to play well without that, without having that added pressure. And he's going to have enough pressure coming in, especially in Toronto."
Speaking on TSN on Sunday, former Maple Leafs captain Wendel Clark talked about all the off-ice things that Tavares will have to deal with, the relentless demands on his time and resources in his hometown.
"It isn't really the fans and the media as much as how you deal with your coming-home situation," Clark said. "Saturday night at 4:30, your dad calls and says, 'Bob across the street needs two tickets,' and you're in the dressing room and you have to try to find tickets for Bob across the street, who's your dad's best friend. Sounds funny, but those are the situations that come into play when you're a hometown player."
Keon, born in Noranda, Quebec, might as well be a Toronto native, as a teen having played with the powerhouse Toronto St. Michael's Majors from 1956-60 before graduating to the Maple Leafs. He chuckled when he heard Clark's comments, suggesting those distractions won't be a factor in today's NHL.
"They'll all be taken care of," Keon said. "I don't think they'll affect John in any way, shape or form.
"The thing is, he wants to play in his hometown. That's really important. For a long time there were a lot of players who didn't want to play in Toronto. Now because the team is playing pretty well and it looks like they've got a lot of potential, guys seem to want to go and play there. In Tavares' case he grew up in the area and he wants to go home and help the team get better. It's a couple of steps away but he wants to be there to be part of those steps.
"Getting to the next level is a progressive thing. I think John's arrival certainly gives the Leafs the best possibility of doing that. There's still work that has to be done, but I think he's a really great hockey player and he can't do anything but help the team."