Captain John Tavares hopes to lead Leafs from a comfortable spot

Captain John Tavares hopes to lead Leafs from a comfortable spot

John Tavares may actually be able to focus a bit more on his personal numbers while he continues the delicate balancing act of being the Leafs’ captain during a tumultuous start.

A coaching change, from Mike Babcock to Sheldon Keefe, has created some stability, and more changes on the ice might help Tavares get back to the comfort level he had in scoring a career-high 47 goals last season. He has just six goals in 18 games this season, with his start interrupted by a seven-game absence due to a broke finger and with wingers Zach Hyman and Mitch Marner out for different stretches.

Tavares naturally wants to turn things around. One area that might help is on the power play, with Tavares recently returning to the inner slot, the spot in front of the goalie, after being moved to the high slot at the start of the year. The captain led the NHL in inner slot goals last season, with 21. He has two from that position this season.

“It’s been a different start for me personally this year,” said Tavares, who also welcomed a new son just prior to training camp.

“But, saying that, you have to find ways to be productive. (The area by the net has) been a big part of my game and, obviously, getting back there on the power play is important. There’s a comfort level there, how I work with my teammates, how I got a good feeling for being there, tip-ins, loose pucks, rebounds … so definitely, you want to find that rhythm.”

Tavares’s captaincy with the Leafs was never tested more dramatically than during the Leafs’ recent six-game losing streak. The team was criticized for failing to compete to acceptable standards during a one-sided loss in Pittsburgh two Saturdays ago. Babcock was fired three days later, and word surfaced afterward about a difficult exchange with the coach and players between periods in Pittsburgh.

And Tavares was dealing with his own challenges.

“No question, it’s different from last year, and certainly breaking my finger was not ideal,” he said. “I think its sticking with the process, getting a good feeling with my teammates, keep working … Obviously, we have to create scoring chances, but the players we have and the players I have (on my line), they’re very talented, so (you) just stick with it.”

Marner, who is out with a high ankle sprain, began skating on his own and shooting on a goalie Monday. A story surfaced over the weekend that, in his rookie season, Babcock asked him to rank the hardest-working Leafs, top to bottom, and then surprised Marner by sharing that conversation with the rest of the team.

“I was lucky enough that the guys that were there with me, none of them took it to heart and they knew it wasn’t up to me,” Marner told TSN on Monday.

Tavares was shown handing the game puck to Keefe after his first win as Leafs coach last week, and promising things will get better, presumably for both him and his teammates.

“I think obviously you want to score as much as you can, but you want your team to play up to its capabilities,” he said.

“The more we have the puck, the more we can control the game. But (we) have to find those areas where we can do it best. For sure, we have to compete without the puck, help out defensively in our own zone … (but) then maximize the team’s ability when we have the puck.”

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Mark Zwolinski

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