When the Toronto Maple Leafs recovered almost three months after COVID-19 broke the brakes during their season, they did so with masks and instructed to keep a safe distance. They skated in groups as small as four and operated on strictly timed parameters to complete their training sessions. John Tavares brought his sticks and a few rolls of duct tape home so as not to waste any of his powers in a ritual usually reserved for the locker room.
And yet, for all of the new restrictions and guidelines now governing phase 2 of the NHL return to play protocol, there was just enough “normal” to allow for a positive mental as well as physical experience.
Tavares called it a breath of fresh air.
“Just train together, be on the ice, pass the puck, be in the gym, do a good workout. Everyone pushes each other, “he said on Tuesday. “It was an explosion just the first few days to start over. ”
The Leafs entered phase 2 with more enthusiasm than any of the other 23 NHL teams currently waiting for a summer playoff tournament. They expect to see around 20 of their own players pass through the training center in the first week, including some like William Nylander, Kasperi Kapanen and Jack Campbell who have already observed a quarantine 14 days after their return the United States.
These training sessions are entirely voluntary, so Toronto’s high level of participation is entirely player-oriented. This is partly a reflection of the number of guys coming from the region – a list that includes Tavares, Mitch Marner, Zach Hyman, Jake Muzzin, Jason Spezza, Travis Dermott and others – but also a belief within the group that this extra time together represents an opportunity.
“We really want to take advantage of it,” said Tavares. “It’s not just about taking out the cobwebs. ”
This is an interesting thought because about a third of the returning NHL teams shouldn’t even open their facilities until next week, mainly because they don’t have enough players in town to justify it or n ‘have not received a sufficient level of interest from those who are.
In many cases, these players do not feel the need to participate in Phase 2 because they are already in places where they can skate and train – just like Leafs star Auston Matthews and goaltender number 1 Frederik Andersen, who continue to wait for the break together in Scottsdale, Ariz.
(The main reason Matthews and Andersen have not yet returned is due to the mandatory 14-day quarantine for those entering Canada, which may soon be eased pending the outcome of ongoing conversations between the federal government and the NHL ).
Where other teams have considered training camps that would likely not start before mid-July and have decided that there is no rush, much of the Leafs training has prioritized use of this five week window to get back together.
In fact, Tavares said it had not heard any members of the team express concerns about the unresolved details to be resolved in the return to play plan – a sign of impatience to end this interrupted season which It’s probably not shared so enthusiastically in the locker room across the league.
“The urgency is extremely high,” said Tavares. “To take advantage of this opportunity, we are fortunate to have a good chance of being able to finish this season and play for the Stanley Cup, and we are one of them.
“To really kiss him. ”
Sessions are closed to media, but Leafs appear to have organized groups of six skaters into line groups where possible – with Tavares, Marner and Ilya Mikheyev together in one, and Nylander, Hyman and Alexander Kerfoot (a likely placeholder for Matthews) part of another.
Tavares said the first two days were focused on fundamentals and a return to comfort on the ice, but they will ultimately seek to develop chemistry with the hope that the training camp will last only three weeks and will include only two exhibition games. before the start of a best-of-five series of play-ins with Columbus.
“Everyone takes this very seriously and I think he has been very connected,” said Tavares. “Obviously we want to get the most out of full cylinders once the competition has started. ”
While it’s difficult to label this approach as an absolute advantage – the Blue Jackets are slated to open their facilities for Phase 2 on Wednesday – it does tell us something about how Leafs players hope to gain an advantage before the playoffs. most unpredictable in NHL history.
After being forced to separate suddenly and without warning, they chose to get back together as soon as they could safely.