With John Tavares and the Toronto Maple Leafs squaring off in opposition to his former workforce, the New York Islanders, for the first time this season on Saturday night time (7 p.m. ET on ESPN+), we ponder the large questions.
Who wins the Stanley Cup first, the Maple Leafs or the Islanders?
Greg Wyshynski, senior NHL author: There are few hockey issues I would like to witness greater than the resurgence of the New York Islanders as a Stanley Cup contender, whom I’ve lengthy stated are poised to have a Chicago Blackhawks-level nationwide nostalgic love-fest. Conversely, there are few hockey issues I would like to witness greater than the continued Chicago Cubs-level drought of the Toronto Maple Leafs, as divergent forces of entitlement and futility carry steadiness to the middle of the hockey universe.
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Whereas the Islanders may simply rise once more, I’ve sadly grow to be assured that with Brendan Shanahan and Kyle Dubas guiding Toronto, it is only a matter of time earlier than we see John Tavares increase the Cup for the Maple Leafs. I would say it occurs inside the subsequent three years.
Emily Kaplan, nationwide NHL reporter: I consider in Barry Trotz’s capacity to morph a uncooked group right into a refined (and defensively accountable) unit. I do know Lou Lamoriello’s observe file of constructing contenders. I like watching Mathew Barzal, a participant who seems to be like he was constructed from the EA Sports activities lab. I additionally know the Islanders have a deep pipeline of expertise to assist him.
However have you ever seen the Maple Leafs play this season? New York goes to get there, but it surely’s going to take time. Toronto’s Cup window has sprung open. They’ve the gaudiest ahead group in the league, a goaltender in Frederik Andersen that’s succesful sufficient, and the urgency of impending wage cap hell to get it carried out soon. The Islanders might win inside the decade. Toronto ought to win in the subsequent two to three years.
Dimitri Filipovic, hockey analytics author: I do know it is en vogue to look forward to Toronto’s upcoming monetary state of affairs and query how they will handle to make all of the items match beneath the wage cap, but it surely’s essential to keep in mind that’s in the end a fairly good drawback to have. The rationale that is even a dialogue in the first place is as a result of they occur to be blessed with plenty of super younger items which can be all going to be incomes their large paydays.
Having to doubtlessly undergo the Bruins and Lightning in consecutive rounds simply to attain the East finals looms as an awfully tall process, but when anybody has the firepower to blast by way of that roadblock, it is them. They’ve a goalie that may possible be a Vezina Trophy finalist, a defenseman in Morgan Rielly that’s making a powerful case to be a Norris Trophy finalist, three legitimately potent scoring traces that they will roll out with out concern and one in all the most deadly energy performs in the league. That is fairly a method for achievement. Purely due to proximity to rivalry in the current, the Leafs have to be the reply right here.
Has John Tavares exceeded expectations or underwhelmed in Toronto?
Wyshynski: Exceeded. There is a purpose legions of “Good Ontario Boys” have determined not to return residence to play for the Leafs. The expectations are greater than the CN Tower, particularly when one indicators a $77 million contract. The strain may be crushing. Family and friends are always bugging you for stuff. However that hasn’t occurred to Tavares in 12 months 1. He is on observe for 56 targets, which might blow away his earlier profession better of 38. He is been a point-per-game participant twice in his profession earlier than when taking part in over 80 video games; it could be a stunner if he did not crack that ceiling if he performs 80 this season. Higher than marketed.
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Kaplan: Once you’re a ahead with a max contract, you are anticipated to put up league-leading numbers. Getting into the Christmas break, solely Alex Ovechkin and Jeff Skinner had scored extra targets than Tavares’ 24, and Tavares added two extra on Friday night time.
However Tavares is exceeding expectations as a result of he is making everybody round him higher, too. Mitch Marner went from ascending expertise to a absolutely multimillion greenback man by taking part in alongside Tavares (Marner is the solely Maple Leafs participant ever to have 50 factors earlier than Christmas). Tavares has shouldered the media scrutiny (and preliminary flurry of hypothesis about the captaincy) with grace. He additionally helped this workforce stage up. As Nazem Kadri advised the Toronto Solar this week, when Tavares signed his contract, there “was a message to us that we may very well be critical contenders. That message was positively obtained.”
Filipovic: He is presently on tempo for 56 targets and 95 factors, each of which might simply grow to be new profession bests. We’re not even midway by way of the regular-season schedule and he is already bested his 5-on-5 purpose whole from final season. All of his per-minute metrics have seen a major uptick as nicely, suggesting that he is doing extra with much less, no less than when it comes to utilization, although not essentially based mostly on the high quality of his teammates. The match alongside Marner has been a match made in heaven, with the two instantly having carried the Leafs’ offense to a bigger diploma than was anticipated due to Auston Matthews’ harm and William Nylander’s holdout. Contemplating that Marner is probably going the most proficient pure playmaker he is had on his wing full time, it is not all that stunning that Tavares is racking up the purpose totals that he’s. He has personally straight arrange 12 of Tavares’ 19 5-on-5 targets and 16 of his 26 whole tallies. That should not diminish Tavares’ particular person efficiency although, as a result of he is been each bit pretty much as good as marketed.
Sachin Chandan, ESPN The Journal researcher: Tavares has exceeded expectations, as he is on tempo for his finest season. If he does rating 56 targets, as Greg mentions, it could be second-highest single-season whole in Leafs historical past. He is scored or assisted on 30 p.c of all Leafs targets, leads the NHL in 5-on-5 targets and is averaging three.71 photographs per recreation, the highest charge of his profession. His presence has elevated teammates Marner, who has assisted on 16 of Tavares’ 26 targets, and defenseman Morgan Rielly, who has assisted on 10. His taking pictures proportion is abnormally excessive, nevertheless, at 18.four p.c, so there needs to be a little bit regression. Tavares’ legacy will likely be tied to how late he performs into June, however for now he seems to be like the offensive engine Toronto needed.
Are you extra or much less assured that the Islanders will likely be OK with out Tavares?
Wyshynski: Robust query. I am assured in Barry Trotz and his merry band of coaches getting the finest out of no matter group is given to them. I am not as assured in Lou Lamoriello circa 2018 constructing a tangible winner with whole autonomy moderately than being in a mind belief like in Toronto. Because it stands, this Islanders workforce nonetheless feels gutted, constructed round a franchise participant that is not with the franchise. However there is a ton of assistance on the manner by way of their prospect pipeline. I assume in the finish I would say “extra assured,” however that is solely as a result of the preliminary feeling of devastation has subsided.
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Kaplan: I had doubts about the 2018-19 Islanders, particularly when it appeared like Lamoriello might have misplaced his thoughts this summer season and signed each out there fourth-line middle on the market. However nearing the midway mark of the season, these Islanders have made me really feel foolish. Sure, they have been a bit fortunate with the league’s third-highest PDO (taking pictures proportion plus save proportion). However the protection is a lot much less leaky beneath Trotz (they’ve let, on common, about one much less purpose per recreation), and the core was extra self-sufficient than I gave them credit score for. They will be alright in any case.
Filipovic: They’ve actually been higher than we had any purpose to consider they’d be prior to the season, based mostly on the summer season that they had. With Trotz behind the bench, they’ve utterly tightened issues up defensively after a yr from hell in their very own zone final season. The mixture of that and the top-flight goaltending they’ve obtained from the mixture of Thomas Greiss and Robin Lehner no less than offers them an opportunity to compete each night time.
With that stated, I am not in the end positive how far that will get them in the short-to-medium time period. The construction and system being built-in are one factor, however till they’ve higher expertise sprinkled all through the lineup, there’s solely a lot they will do with it. It isn’t utterly bitter grapes to recommend that they dodged a bullet not having to pay Tavares $11 million per season nicely into his 30s, however they will nonetheless want to finally discover a manner to substitute that expertise that walked out the door. The excellent news is that they a) drafted remarkably nicely final summer season and have some fascinating prospects on the manner, b) have monetary flexibility to get inventive with and doubtlessly make a splash this summer season, and c) carried out a heck of a job of saving face and never utterly cratering like many anticipated they might after being left at the altar by Tavares. All in all, it is laborious to view the first three months of life with out John Tavares as something apart from cautiously encouraging. However there’s nonetheless loads of work to be carried out earlier than that caveat may be lifted with any actual confidence.
Chandan: My confidence in the Islanders is extra so about Trotz, whose groups have a tendency to be defensively stout. The Islanders gave up the most targets final season; this season, they’ve surrendered the second fewest. Whereas Greiss and Lehner may be taking part in unsustainably nicely in purpose, it is clear that this workforce has addressed it is largest weak point. They may take one other step ahead subsequent season, as they function 5 prospects in our top-100 checklist, and venture to have $31 million in cap house for 2019-20. Unsurprisingly, their largest want will likely be a high purpose scorer.