The opening faceoff of Toronto’s season was two days away. John Tavares was summoned to Scotiabank Arena, and general manager Kyle Dubas brought him into president Brendan Shanahan’s office for what the former Islanders center thought was just a meeting about some logistical stuff.
Tavares’ wife, Aryne, stood inside, holding their nearly 3-week-old son, Jace. The baby wore a blue No. 91 jersey with a special letter on the front — “C.” Tavares, the 14th captain of the Islanders before leaving in July of 2018 for his favorite team from his boyhood days in the Toronto suburbs, was informed by Dubas he had become the 25th captain of the Maple Leafs.
“That’s a hell of a surprise,” Tavares told the people in that office on Sept. 30.
It’s a role that Tavares treasures.
“I think I’m very fortunate to be a captain for two great franchises,” Tavares said at the Garden Wednesday before contributing a goal and an assist in a 5-3 loss to the Rangers. “Obviously, they’re unique in their own way.
“I think being the captain of the Maple Leafs is obviously very special with the history and the tradition of the franchise, being an Original Six team, what the game means to the city of Toronto and the community, and just how it’s really a fabric of the people and what it’s all about, the game of hockey and the Toronto Maple Leafs and how it’s so intertwined.
“So it’s really special to be a part of that, to feel that every day and to be given that honor. It’s something I don’t take for granted or take lightly.”
So how’s the 29-year-old captain’s second season with Toronto going after nine with the Islanders?
Tavares hasn’t been on as prolific a pace as last season when he delivered career-high totals of 47 goals and 88 points in 82 games. His numbers look good, though, despite missing seven games early on with a broken finger. He has 20 goals, 24 assists and 44 points in 47 games.
“I think he would like to have had perhaps more offensive production,” said coach Sheldon Keefe, who has guided Toronto to a 19-9-3 record since Mike Babcock was fired on Nov. 20 following a 9-10-4 start. “But he’s still producing at a very high level.”
Keefe also cited Tavares’ consistent work ethic as a tone-setter.
“He’s probably the most professional guy I’ve ever played with,” defenseman Tyson Barrie said. “He’s obviously a tremendous offensive player, but he’s very calming and a big influence in the room, too.”
His Leafs are second in the NHL in goals. They’re also fourth in the Atlantic, one point behind Florida for a playoff spot, and two behind Philadelphia for the East’s second wild card.
“We obviously got off to a tough start this season,” Tavares said, “and we’ve got ourselves back in a good position now to go out there and earn an opportunity to play for the Stanley Cup.”