On Sunday at Scotiabank Arena, the Toronto Maple Leafs defeated the Washington Capitals 5-1. Celebrating his 1,000th career NHL game, Toronto captain John Tavares logged two assists to bring him to 946 points in his career.
Now in his fifth season in Toronto, Tavares is still looking for his first playoff series win in the blue and white. But in terms of individual achievements, the 32-year-old has absolutely realized the lofty potential that made him the first-overall pick in the 2009 NHL draft.
By age 18, Tavares had already been lauded for years. In 2005, when he was 14, he became the first player ever to be granted exceptional status to start his major junior career in the Canadian Hockey League a year early, as a 15-year-old. And that exceptional status tag has remained rare. In 2020, current top prospect Connor Bedard became the seventh player in Canada to receive the designation, and the first from the Western Hockey League. This year, 2025-draft-eligible Michael Misa of the OHL’s Saginaw Spirit was named the eighth. And just three of the six exceptional status drafted into the NHL did go on to become first-overall picks: Tavares, Aaron Ekblad (2014) and Connor McDavid (2015).
A high-end center with sharp offensive instincts and strong leadership skills, Tavares’s NHL career has become a testament to his consistency.
His durability has made him the first player from his draft class to reach 1,000 games. Only three others from 2009 are over 900: Ryan O’Reilly of the St. Louis Blues (975 games, but currently sidelined with a broken foot), Matt Duchene of the Nashville Predators (952 games) and Victor Hedman of the Tampa Bay Lightning (943 games).
Tavares has 21 goals in 51 games so far this year. That continues a trend that has seen him scored at least 19 times in every one of his 14 NHL season — including the lockout-shortened 48-game campaign in 2012-13 (28-19-47), and the COVID-shortened campaigns in 2019-20 (26-34-60 in 63 games) and 2020-21 (19-31-50 in 56 games).
His 946 points lead his draft class by a mile — Duchene sits second with 726 points — and he ranks fifth among all players in total points since the 2009-10 season. Sidney Crosby and Patrick Kane are tied at the top of the list (1,072 points each) followed by Alex Ovechkin (1,044) and Steven Stamkos (983).
In his fourth NHL season in 2012-13, Tavares finished third in Hart Trophy voting after putting up 28 goals and 47 points in 48 games. Five months later, he was names the Islanders captain at age 22 and in 2014-15, he finished third in Hart voting again, and second in the NHL scoring race with 86 points in 82 games.
The following season, Tavares put up a team-leading 11 points in 11 games as the Islanders reached the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 1993. But after two more years outside the playoff picture — and with the Islanders’ arena situation still in flux as it became apparent that Barclays Center in Brooklyn was not a suitable home — Tavares chose to explore unrestricted free agency in 2018, rather than sign a contract extension with the club that drafted him.
In the NHL, it’s rare to see top players move to new teams as free agents, and rarer still for disgruntled stars not to at least be shipped out in exchange for draft picks and prospects when it appears that a relationship is fraying. But much like Johnny Gaudreau when he decided to forego Calgary for Columbus in the summer of 2022, Tavares wrestled with his decision until the 11th hour.
In the end, he signed on with his hometown team. The Leafs offered him a seven-year contract with a cap hit of $11 million per season, a full no-movement clause and, one year after his arrival, the captaincy.
Now, Tavares has two more years on his contract after this one. And while there were concerns when he signed in Toronto that he’d become less effective as he aged, that hasn’t been the case so far. His two assists on Sunday get him to 51 points in 51 games this season — a point-per-game pace that’s slightly better than his career average. And Tavares has become a face-off beast since joining the Leafs. He ranks fourth among players with more than 200 draws over the last two years, with a win rate of 59.8%.
In the NHL’s hard-cap system, with a ceiling of $82.5 million for a 23-man roster this season, just 14 players carry eight-figure cap hits in 2022-23. The Maple Leafs are the only team with three of those players on their roster: Auston Matthews, the 2022 Hart Trophy winner, ranks third ($11.6 million), Tavares is fifth and winger Mitch Marner is seventh ($10.9 million).
Toronto general manager Kyle Dubas has taken his fair share of criticism for building a top-heavy roster. But over the years, he has found ways to cut corners financially while building an effective defense, bottom-six forward group and goaltending tandem.
After just one playoff appearance in 11 years between 2006 and 2016, the Leafs have now reached the postseason in six straight years. And they’ve become one of the best regular-season squads in the NHL, finishing fourth overall with a franchise-high .701 points percentage in 2021-22 and sitting fourth again this season with a record of 31-12-8 for 70 points (.686) following Sunday’s win over Washington.
But Toronto hasn’t won a playoff round since 2004, before the year-long lockout that led to the introduction of the salary cap. And with 31 games left in the regular season, it already looks like the Leafs are on track for a first-round rematch in April with the Tampa Bay Lightning. The 2020 and 2021 Stanley Cup Champions, the Lightning knocked out Toronto in a seven-game thriller before going back to the Stanley Cup Final last spring and remain a formidable foe.
So even as he relished his 1,000-game milestone, Tavares is looking to the road ahead.
“To get to this point, a lot of hard work, commitment, sacrifice,” he told Mark Masters of TSN after Sunday’s win. “But I think I’m still most excited about what’s ahead and continuing to push forward.
“Still got a lot left in the tank and I really believe in myself to play at a high level and obviously help this team here and want to do some great things. It’s a great milestone. Happy to be there but excited to push forward now.”