With NHL commissioner Gary Bettman laying out a 24-team return-to-play plan earlier this week and the possibility of beginning to open practice facilities for small group workouts as earlier as new week as part of Phase 2, Toronto Maple Leafs captain John Tavares says his team is starting to get excited for what the future might hold.
"I think guys are excited about getting back on the ice and getting back together. There’s still a few more hurdles with the quarantine, travel restrictions and some of those rules. Guys are still trying to figure out their plans and get a better sense of what’s coming down the road," Tavares told TSN's Gino Reda in a recent interview. "So, as days and the next couple weeks go by there can only be more clarity and once we get the ball rolling, hopefully things keep on progressing positively."
Tavares, who was key member of Return To Play committee, says a key issue going forward is how much time players will need to get back into shape before the possible resumption of games later this summer. Phase 2 is for individual and small group workouts with Phase 3 being a full training camp.
"I think that’s the magic question that we’re going to be facing here pretty shortly," explained Tavares. "It’s something we’ve never faced before or never really been in. It’s not going to be perfect, but I think trying to get a sense through the first week, maybe even into 10 days, two weeks of this Phase 2 is really going to give us a sense from the players and the membership of where we are at and what we’re going to need."
Discussions between the NHL and NHLPA regarding hub cities and what players will be able to do when they are not at the rink are still going on. Tavares, who represented Canada at the 2014 Winter Olympics, has some thoughts on the matter.
"One way I kind of look at it is maybe try to create some sort of Olympic village type of atmosphere. You know how secluded you are, at least from my experience when I was at the Sochi Olympic Games," he said. "You’re really at the village and your venues for the most part. Obviously, there’s opportunities to go and watch other sports and interact with different things, but we obviously know the restrictions and things we’re dealing with now. Hopefully, things continue to improve and if we're back playing, I think that means our countries and communities will be in a lot better place."
If the season gets back on its feet, the Maple Leafs, ranked eighth in the Eastern Conference when play was halted due to COVID-19 on March 12, will battle the No. 9 Columbus Blue Jackets in a best-of-five play-in series for the right to qualify for the playoffs.
Toronto split their two contests with Columbus this season, both happening back in October. The Jackets shocked the hockey world last spring when they swept the Presidents' Trophy-winning Tampa Bay Lightning.
Tavares says the Leafs' focus right now is just to get back on the ice and into playing shape, but realizes Columbus will be a tough matchup if and when it happens.
"We know have competitive our league is. How tight our league is…the parity. Columbus has been a very proven team and extremely hard working, very well coached team for many years now," said Tavares, who is in his second year with the Leafs. "They’ve certainly earned where they are and every opportunity that they’re getting so we know we’re going to be in for quite the series. We’re really going to have to earn it."
The 29-year-old has 26 goals and 34 assists over 63 games this season.
With the 2019-20 regular season not complete and an approximate fourth month break before a possible start to the postseason, some might question the legitimacy of this year's Stanley Cup winner. Tavares doesn't see it as a problem.
"Considering what we’re going through in the world, if we have the ability to come back and play and compete for the Stanley Cup and a team has to potentially win five rounds to lift the Cup over their head, it’s going to be a pretty deserving winner. It was talked about heavily amongst the players. Anyone that gets their names engraved on it wants to earn it like any player before them did," Tavares explained. "Considering the circumstances and what so many other industries and businesses and people in the world are going through, if we’re able to come back and compete for the Stanley Cup, I think we should feel very fortunate and believe that we’re going to get a true deserving winner. I think we can do a lot of good in the world in our communities, our countries, to be able to play and give them something to watch and cheer about."
The expectation is that the playoffs won's start until late July or early August.