Why John Tavares Is One of the Best Centers in the NHL

By Chris Boyle

One of the cornerstones of any team with championship aspirations is an elite centerman.

We continually witness this every June when Gary Bettman comes out to a chorus of boos and hands over the Stanley Cup. Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews, Anze Kopitar, Ryan Getzlaf and Patrice Bergeron have all taken laps with the Stanley Cup over the last eight seasons. If we look among the elite cornerstone centers in the NHL, John Tavares can be easily placed among those names.

Islanders Tavares Home

Recently Sportsnet used Sportlogic data to rank the elite centers in the NHL and the only player listed above Tavares that was not on a Stanley Cup-winning team was Joe Thornton. Thornton was was two wins away games of joining that group last summer.

Tavares is in this lofty company because of his devastating offensive arsenal. He is a brilliant package of size, speed and vision.

These skills are apparent when we view his advanced data. For larger sample purposes, I used Tavares even strength on-ice data from the 2015-16 regular season.

In order to establish quality, I sorted the shots when he was on the ice into four different categories: Clear Sight, Slot-Line Passes, Tipped Shots and Rebound Shots. If Tavares 1) took the shot or was responsible for 2) the slot-line pass that led directly to the shot or 3) the shot that was tipped or 4) the shot that led to the rebound shot, I credited him with being involved.

While Tavares was only responsible for 31 percent of all the shots taken while he was on the ice, his ability to create high-quality chances was reflected through his percentage of actual goals (47 percent) and expected goals (51 percent).

Tavares creates pre-shot movement on 32 percent of the shots that he is involved with at even strength. When we remove his contribution from the on-ice results, his teammates produce these opportunities only 16 percent of the time, slightly above the league average distribution of 15 percent.

This is illustrated when we observe the on-ice shot distribution when Tavares was on the ice during the 2015-16 Season. (Pre-shot movement indicated in green)

Boyle Graphic Tavares 11416 Boyle Graphic Tavares2

Tavares is essential to the Islanders‘ offensive success when he is on the ice. His speed allows him to create high percentage individual chances and he rarely settles for exterior low percentage shots outside of the home plate area. The No. 1 selection overall in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft is smart enough to hold on the puck and look for teammates in superior positions to score if the defense is only giving him low percentage shots.

When he doesn’t have the puck, he is able to retrieve it and maintain offensive possession. He creates offense by patrolling the high danger zone for rebound opportunities and tipping low percentage exterior shots creating an information disruption for goaltenders. The expected save percentage for the opposition goaltender when Tavares is involved in the shot creation is .859.

When he is on the ice and isn’t involved in the process of the shot creation, the Islanders not only struggle to produce shots inside the home plate area, but they have a tendency to settle for exterior low percentage shots. Clear sight, lack of information disruption contributes to the goaltender success rate skyrocketing to .938 based on expected goal totals.

Boyle Tavares Graphic 11416

This type of deception and movement is the reason why Tavares is among the best offensive centers in the NHL. When he is involved, the opposition goaltender produces the equivalent save percentage to Chico Resch in the 1980s. When he isn’t scoring, the other goalie is as daunting as facing Carey Price.

Tavares at 26 is in his offensive prime and the Islanders have the center that is essential to any Stanley Cup aspirations. The next essential step is providing him with the support to lighten his burden and provide the environment for him to take the next step of his rightful ascension among the Cup-winning centers in his class.