By Cole Parkinson
When John Tavares signed this offseason to be a Toronto Maple Leaf for the next seven seasons, I along with many other lifelong Maple Leafs fans were ecstatic to be getting another superstar up the middle.
The biggest concern brought up was the cap hit which would equal out to $11 million per year and with deals needed for William Nylander, Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews, people automatically jumped on the fact he was getting paid too much money and it would be an added challenge to sign the big three.
But JT already has 42 points in 37 games at the time of writing this which gives him 24 goals and 18 assists at the Christmas break, which is incredibly impressive.
A good reason why Tavares has already reached that many points falls to being on a line with Marner, who will be due a big pay raise come this offseason if he continues playing like he has been, though nowhere near the $10 million people are projecting.
Being a homecoming for Tavares, the expectations were sky high for him and so far he has been able to succeed those lofty goals cast on him when he signed on July 1.
Projections at a full 82 game season have him finishing with 53 goals, which would be a career high and 40 assists.
It’s hard to predict if he will reach those projected totals but the production he has given the Leafs so far has been worth the dollars needed to get him in the blue and white.
When Auston Matthews went down earlier this year with a shoulder injury, it sure was nice to have centre depth consisting of JT and Nazem Kadri and it certainly helped keep the ship moving forward without their best player.
So while the cap hit may be a concern further down the road, Tavares has been worth every penny so far in this season.
The good news for the Leafs is, even though they are going to have a significant bump in salaries next season with both Marner and Matthews due, they have some wiggle room to get it done.
Having Tavares locked up for his cap hit may be a hurdle but it is not a complete roadblock as they have movable pieces and other contracts are up at the end of the year which will give some more financial aid.
While this is always on the minds of Leafs fans, it is important to focus on the season at hand first before we start shipping out players and signing others.
The Tavares signing also shifted a massive change in the perception of playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
When Steven Stamkos hit free agency in 2016, the Leafs pitched to the star centreman only to be turned down as he went back to Tampa Bay.
Now at that point, the Maple Leafs were still in the midst of a lengthy rebuild and weren’t really projected to turn it around as quickly as they did, plus Stamkos had a pretty good team to go back to in the Tampa Bay Lightning.
The perception has always been Toronto born players don’t want to play for the Leafs and that has largely remained true for the past several years but I think that was because the team was really bad.
With Matthews, Morgan Rielly, Marner, Nylander and Freddie Andersen in the fold and Toronto making the playoffs for multiple seasons in a row, that obviously helps make it a more attractive destination for players.
Adding John Tavares not only helps that perception but it also makes them that much better of a team, not a perfect team mind you, but a better team than they were last year.
While it was obvious the Leafs would get a meeting with Tavares, it was far from a guaranteed thing and the Leafs were prepared to let some of their prominent players walk for free agency in order to accommodate the cap hit needed for Tavares.
Losing Tyler Bozak and James van Riemsdyk to free agency looks like it was a good choice so far this season as combined they are making $12 million a year (JVR is at $7 and Bozak is at $5) and have considerable lower totals than the man they were replaced with.
Now JVR has had injury problems this year and Bozak has struggled with his new team but they have only put up 11 points and 15 points, respectively.
So while the $11 million cap hit may look inflated, in reality, it has equalled out quite nicely for the Maple Leafs.
As the trade deadline approaches, the Leafs do have some work to do but I’d say their forward group will largely remain intact.
The biggest area of needed improvement comes from defense, namely the right side as the left has been strong with Rielly, Jake Gardiner and Travis Dermott.
The real issues though are quite apparent with Ron Hainsey still playing top minutes, Nikita Zaitsev looking out of place and Igor Ozhiganov still in his rookie year.
With a projected total of just over $5.3 million in cap space, the Leafs will have some room to make a deal or two to improve the defense and I wouldn’t be shocked if they looked to add goaltender depth either as they lost both Curtis McElhinney and Calvin Pickard on waivers at the beginning of the season.
For the first time in probably decades, the Leafs really have no major worries about centre depth as they have three top six centremen in the lineup.
After Mats Sundin left, the Leafs were always after that elusive top centreman and now they have two so the front office doesn’t even need to worry on that front.
An improvement on the backend though would go a long way and could potentially be a game changer for the Leafs come playoffs.
While they aren’t a guaranteed lock for the Stanley Cup, they’ll have a ticket to the dance come playoff time and if there is anything I’ve learned from watching playoff hockey in my 23 years, it’s anything can happen.
The addition of Johnny T will present matchup challenges to any team they face though no matter where they finish in the standings, they will be facing a tough division rival, most likely in the first round because Tampa Bay is the best team in the East.
So whether it be Boston again, Buffalo, Montreal or Tampa Bay, the Leafs will need to bring their ‘A’ game in order to finally get past the first round for the first time since the 2003/2004 season.