With the Toronto Maple Leafs down 3-0 in their series with the Florida Panthers, the team's season stands on the edge of a knife — and there's plenty of blame to go around.
As is often the case when the Leafs fail to deliver in the playoffs, the team's top four forwards have come under fire. The combination of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares and William Nylander account for approximately 49% of Toronto's salary cap and they haven't scored a single goal against Florida.
It makes sense to address that group together as they are all at least somewhat complicit in the team's playoff disappointments in recent years, but it's also a bit of an oversimplification.
Take Matthews, for example.
The star centre was literally inches from a completely different narrative in Game 3 when he hit a post seconds into the contest.
In this series, the Maple Leafs are outshooting the Panthers 30-19 when Matthews in on the ice at 5-on-5 with an xGF% of 57.40. The star scorer has been robbed by Sergei Bobrovsky over and over again while putting 14 shots on net. That underlying performance normally results in goals, it just hasn't in this case.
Nylander has similarly strong underlying 5-on-5 numbers with an xGF% even better than Matthews (58.65%), played an outstanding Game 2 that resulted in his coach saying he was the "best player on the ice by a mile" in the third period, and provided a beautiful setup out of nothing on Toronto's second goal in Game 3.
Nylander draws all the Panthers over to one side giving Gustafsson an open lane pic.twitter.com/Ki5RqwyO4z
— Omar (@TicTacTOmar) May 7, 2023
The other two players in the "Core Four" are harder to defend. Marner doesn't have an even-strength point in the series despite skating 23:50 per night, and he's coming off a Game 3 where he produced a team-low xGF% of 24.51% and a committed a number of atrocious giveaways.
For all the sins of the others, Tavares stands out as a player who isn't just failing to convert on opportunities but actively improving Florida's chances of winning games.
Looking at his basic numbers, Tavares is pointless with a minus-3 rating against the Panthers. That's a solid indication that he hasn't been a difference maker, but looking a little deeper it's even clearer that he's having a rough go.
With Tavares on the ice at 5-on-5 the Maple Leafs have been outshot 22-32 and failed to score. His xGF% of 44.29% ranks 16th among Toronto's skaters.
His most common linemate in this series has been Nylander, and the Swede has been far more effective without him while Tavares has floundered without the winger at 5-on-5:
These stats come from small samples, but the results are jarring.
In this series, Tavares has needed Nylander alongside him to generate looks, but when he's gotten those looks he hasn't done anything with them.
Below is an individual event map for Tavares against Florida at 5-on-5. He's gotten five opportunities right in the slot and only one of them has resulted in a shot on net with three misses and a block.
To be clear, no one player is responsible for the predicament the Maple Leafs find themselves in. But there's a distinction to be drawn between guys who are generating offence and not seeing positive outcomes follow and those who simply aren't creating.
Tavares falls in the latter category.
What's supposed to make the Maple Leafs a contender is the idea that they have two lines packed with elite talent. Matthews is a franchise centre who other teams have a tough time matching up with, but most quality squads have a first line with blue-chip stars.
Toronto can be confident about its first line against anyone, but it's meant to feel great about its second line with Tavares and one of Marner or Nylander. The idea of Tavares as a top-line centre masquerading as a second-liner to eat soft matchups is appealing, but it doesn't consistently work in practice anymore.
Even during the regular season, half of the 32-year-old's goals and 48.8% of his points came with the man advantage. In the playoffs, power plays are often harder to come by, as Toronto saw in Game 3 when it didn't get a minute of 5-on-4 time.
With Tavares off the ice the Maple Leafs have outshot, out-chanced and won the expected goals battle with Florida while tying them in actual goals.
They could've reasonably expected their captain's minutes to help turn the tide in their favour, but so far the opposite has been true.