The Toronto Maple Leafs have jumped right into Phase 2 of the NHL’s Return to Play Plan, with 10 players skating Monday and Tuesday, and more expected by the end of the week.
“Everyone has taken this very seriously and been very dialed in and excited to see the progression,” center John Tavares said Tuesday. “We definitely want to take advantage of [this time]. This isn’t just about getting the cobwebs out. This is about being smart and diligent and take advantage of the time to prepare for what’s ahead.”
The Maple Leafs, New York Islanders, Edmonton Oilers, Philadelphia Flyers and Vegas Golden Knights were among the teams that opened their facilities Monday as part of Phase 2, a process when players are allowed to participate on a voluntary basis. Workouts are limited to a maximum of six players at any time, plus a limited number of staff.
The start dates for Phase 3, the opening of training camps, and Phase 4, the resumption of play, are still to be determined.
The Pittsburgh Penguins opened their facility Tuesday, and more teams are expected to do the same as the week goes on.
It’s the first time players have been on the ice together at team facilities since the NHL paused March 12 due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus.
The Maple Leafs captain, who joined forward Ilya Mikheyev, defenseman Jake Muzzin and goalie Jack Campbell on the ice at Ford Performance Center the past two days, expects forward Mitchell Marner and defenseman Cody Ceci to join the group Thursday after their COVID-19 testing. Another group consisting of forwards Zach Hyman, Alexander Kerfoot and William Nylander, defensemen Morgan Rielly and Travis Dermott and goalie Joseph Woll skated Monday and Tuesday as well.
Tavares said one of the most important lessons learned through the first two days is time management. Workouts have been limited to 45-60 minutes off the ice, 40 minutes on it.
“I think the biggest thing is the time crunch with being at the arena …,” Tavares said. “For example, after the first day, just to get a better feel for things, I brought my sticks home so I could tape them up so I could save time at the rink just so I could get everything in that I could get done.
“You know, on the ice, we’ve been just kind of brainstorming amongst the group and then guidance from our development staff. You know, just the fundamentals — skating, passing, stickhandling — and obviously for our goalies to see shots. And just seeing a different variety. Obviously just getting a lot of touches and getting your feet back underneath you, and getting a feel for the intensity, the cardio, building those things up. And skating, something you obviously can’t replicate in the gym off the ice. That’s kind of been the focus so far.”
The NHL on May 26 announced its Return to Play Plan, which will involve 24 teams, 12 from each conference, competing for the Stanley Cup. The Maple Leafs (36-25-9, .579 points percentage) are the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference and will play the No. 9 Columbus Blue Jackets (33-22-15, .579) in a best-of-5 Stanley Cup Qualifiers series when the NHL season resumes. A site and date have yet to be determined.
Tavares said the preparation he and his teammates will get starting this week will be a huge step toward being ready for their matchup with the Blue Jackets. He astutely pointed out that there will be little room for error once the puck is dropped, so every day on the ice is precious.
“It’s not like you’re getting four preseason games and jumping into Game 1 of the season,” Tavares said. “Trying to get off to a good start is paramount; we need to perform right off the bat and get results that we need to continue to move on for a chance to play for the Stanley Cup.
“I think there’ll be really good progression for our group and really use this time to get together and push one another.”
Tavares is a member of the Return to Play Committee, which includes executives from the NHL and NHL Players’ Association, and four other players: Ottawa Senators defenseman Ron Hainsey, Oilers center Connor McDavid, Winnipeg Jets center Mark Scheifele and Flyers forward James van Riemsdyk. Tavares said he has yet to hear of any concerns regarding safety issues from his teammates, who all seem to be in line with the cautious push to move forward.
“No one wants to be put in a situation where guys don’t feel safe and can’t play hockey at the highest level,” he said.