TORONTO – Most of the Maple Leafs have just one game against the Chicago Blackhawks on Saturday standing between them and a full seven days off to enjoy their bye week and the All-Star break.
It’s a long time to be away, especially in the middle of a season, but the mental benefits it offers far outweigh concerns over the team returning to a tight playoff race feeling rusty.
“I think that you come back and you're really excited,” said Zach Hyman after the Leafs’ optional skills practice on Friday. “You miss it; you want to get back to playing hockey. The season is long, so it can get tiring at times on your body and that week [off] for your body is good. But for your mind, just being able to refresh and come back, and it's like, 'Oh man, this is the final two-month sprint. This is it. It's go time.’”
Securing a win over the Blackhawks is Toronto's first priority though, if only so players don’t have to spend their coveted down time distracted by a poor performance. Most are planning to chase the sun to warmer locales or simply get out of town, including Hyman and Tyson Barrie, who is also looking forward to the long reprieve.
“I like it; I've always been a fan,” Barrie said. “It's nice at this point of the year just to step away for a week and regroup and get some rest and get ready for a big push. The importance of every game [after] is clear and you can see the standings shaping up and you're fighting for position and spots. You think [the league is] fast now, but it takes another little step up after the break.”
Leafs’ head coach Sheldon Keefe has never gone through an NHL bye week before, but he was a major proponent of taking multiple days off when coaching the American Hockey League’s Toronto Marlies. Keefe said he would design breaks for his team of three or four consecutive days when the schedule allowed, and felt players reaped the rewards.
“The mental benefit I think is really the biggest one,” Keefe said. “The physical benefit is that you get the rest and all that kind of stuff, but it also does take its toll on your execution and your details. But the mental part of it is what's most important, just to have that break, come back, and feel refreshed.”
For Toronto, the seven days will also involve trying to get healthy. Defenceman Jake Muzzin has been progressing from a fractured foot injury suffered on Dec. 28 with daily on-ice sessions this past week, and the Leafs are hopeful he’ll be in the lineup for their first game back against Nashville on Jan. 27. Trevor Moore has also been making his way back from a concussion since Dec. 27.
And for anyone else dealing with nagging injuries, a period of forced relaxation can’t hurt.
“The game gets pretty stressful sometimes – mentally and physically,” admitted Travis Dermott. “Your body takes a toll, so it's nice to let it recuperate, and you always come back feeling pretty refreshed. It's a nice little split between the first half of the season and the second, right when the hard work starts and all the important games start to get really predominant in your mind.”
That being said, not everyone in the Leafs’ room is a fan of so much time off, at least not all at once.
“I'm probably in the minority; I don't love it,” Jason Spezza admitted on Thursday. “I'd prefer to kind of sprinkle the 10 days throughout the season and have some longer gaps, knowing we could practise a little bit. But guys seem to like it. [It] seems to be a popular thing, so I'll take it and use the rest but I'd prefer not to have it. That's just my own take.”
Mitch Marner is firmly in the opposite camp, but he won’t have as much time as the veteran to embrace the layoff. Along with Auston Matthews and Frederik Andersen, Marner will be representing the Atlantic Division in St. Louis at the All-Star Game, leaving only a few days available beforehand to unwind.
“I think it's nice to just have your body rest and get some time off,” Marner said. “I think it's really great for us right now, with all the injuries we have, for guys to just get some rest, get the treatment if they need it and hopefully we get a couple guys back after this break.”
There will be only 33 regular-season games remaining on the other side for Toronto, and from where the team stands now, every single one could help determine their spring plans.
The Leafs currently have a tenuous hold on third place in the Atlantic, just two points ahead of Florida. But the Panthers have two games in hand, setting up a potential mad dash to the finish line.
“The season definitely ramps up emotionally,” Dermott said. “It's exciting. At the start of the season, you're trying to set yourself up to not really have to panic too hard in the second half and just focus on feeling good and playing well together. But after the break, it’s like, ‘Okay, [show time is] here,’ and we want to make sure we're playing the right way before the really important games come.”