TORONTO — Morgan Rielly had a good idea of what the Toronto Maple Leafs were getting in John Tavares the player.
What impresses him even more — if that’s possible considering the star centre’s gaudy stat line — is the person.
Tavares has come as advertised in his first season with the Leafs, putting the puck in the net, leading by example and accepting his role as one of the faces of the franchise in a hockey-mad market.
He’s also brought a drive, passion and determination away from the limelight that’s resonated with what remains a relatively young and inexperienced team still learning how to win.
“You just get to know him as a guy and realize how hard he works,” Rielly said after Tavares scored a career-high four goals in Monday’s 7-5 victory over the Florida Panthers. “He treats his job very seriously. He’s a good role model for us.
“The best part about him is what he does off the ice. That’s been a pleasure to watch.”
Rielly marvelled at the level of preparation the 28-year-old Tavares goes through to make sure he’s ready to perform on the big stage.
“It’s easy to go into the rink early once a week and do treatment when you feel like it,” said the defenceman. “He does it every single day. It’s not that easy. It’s a long season, and he’s doing the same thing every single day.
“That’s been the most impressive thing, just his attitude towards his job.”
The seemingly low-key Tavares is up to 45 goals on the season, and with six games to go, has a chance to become the first member of the Leafs to score 50 since Dave Andreychuk’s 53 in 1993-94. Heading into Tuesday night’s games, he was also just three goals back of Washington Capitals sniper Alex Ovechkin for the overall lead in the NHL this season.
But asked if the 50-goal milestone had crossed his mind — the top pick in the 2009 NHL draft by the New York Islanders’ previous high-water mark was 38 — Tavares stayed with basically the same message he’s had in Toronto since signing his massive seven-year, US$77-million contract on July 1.
“Changing my mindset at this point probably isn’t the right focus,” he said. “If you get (to 50 goals), it would be great. It just means you’re helping the team out.”
The line of Tavares, Mitch Marner and Zach Hyman combined to put up 10 points against the Panthers on Monday. Marner cracked 90 points for the first time, Hyman reached the 20-goal mark and Tavares now sits at 86 points to tie his career-best output as Toronto shifts attention to Wednesday’s road game against the Philadelphia Flyers.
The Leafs, who sit third in the Atlantic Division, five points back of the Boston Bruins, are almost certainly going to meet their rivals in the first round of the playoffs for the second straight year.
Toronto fell in seven games to Boston last spring, but didn’t have Tavares to both help Marner and Auston Matthews offensively, and to try and counter the Bruins’ top line of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak.
“You try not to worry about the numbers a whole lot,” said Tavares, whose 45 goals also tied Darryl Sittler for the most in franchise history by a centre. “You just want to be productive and continue to get chances and make a difference when the time comes.”
Leafs head coach Mike Babcock mused about line combinations the day Tavares signed, and put him with Marner and Hyman at the start of training camp. Save for the 11 games Hyman missed through injury and a brief experiment when Marner found himself on the wing with Matthews, the trio has stayed intact.
“You try to find chemistry,” said Hyman, whose clear task is to retrieve the puck and grind along the boards. “That doesn’t happen overnight.”
Tavares, who like Marner and Hyman is from the Toronto area, pointed to the trust and ability of each player to read off one other as one of the main reasons for their success.
“From the start of the year, it was great how comfortable we felt,” he said. “It just made it that much easier in making the transition (from the Islanders to the Leafs) and stepping right in and not having to worry about doing too much.”
And like Rielly, Hyman pointed to the intangibles possessed by Tavares.
“He’s so detail-oriented,” Hyman said. “Just seeing how long he prepares … all those little things add up to form John.”
But for all the off-ice attributes, success on it is what Tavares is paid handsomely to deliver.
And he’s been pretty good at that in what is already a special first season with the Leafs.
“He scores greasy ones, he scores nice ones, works hard down low, he makes plays, and can really do it all,” said Rielly, just the third Leafs defenceman to reach 70 points in a season. “When you watch him work the way he does and grind the way he does — but also have his skill — it’s pretty to watch.”
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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press