Toronto Maple Leafs forward John Tavares was in the middle of the league’s return-to-play discussions with the National Hockey League Players’ Association as a member of the Return to Play Committee. On Tuesday, the NHL announced plans for how action could resume.
If the playoffs do happen, Toronto would face the Columbus Blue Jackets in a best-of-five play-in series for a spot in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The Leafs captain said keeping the integrity of the Stanley Cup was discussed heavily in a call with reporters Wednesday.
“I think anyone who gets their name on it wants to earn it like the players did before and I think we all feel given the circumstances for it, it’s not going to perfect considering we had to pause the season,” Tavares explained. “We came to the conclusion that this is the best one, whether it’s perfect or not I think can be up for debate but I think we’re going to get to our normal 16-team playoff.
“I think it’s going to be a very worthy and deserving Stanley Cup champion and it will be as deserving as any player or team before.”
Discussions are still ongoing on whether to make the first round of the playoffs a best-of-five or a best-of-seven series, but Tavares’ personal view would be to play all four rounds of the playoffs in a best-of-seven series.
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On Monday, the NHL announced its plans to enter Phase 2 of its return-to-play protocol which would allow players to train in groups of six or fewer. Because of the extensive layoff, Tavares is wary of the injury risks players face as training ramps up.
“I think the uniqueness of our sport, unlike maybe some of the other sports where running and jumping is really a lot of the major things that you do, a lot of that you can do at home or kind of out in open space and whatnot,” Tavares described. “Obviously for us being on the ice is a big hurdle and as we started discussing with the Return to Play Committee a number of weeks ago, we really wanted to be more on the cautious side than obviously being aggressive.
“It’s obviously something we’ve never really done before but we’re going to try to make the most informed and cautious decision, the best decision that we possibly can to make sure we’re keeping guys healthy and safe. We want the quality of the hockey to be really high and when guys haven’t been on the ice for two and a half months, and then you’re jumping right into a very highly competitive competition, we really want to make sure that everyone’s prepared.”
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If the Leafs return to action, general manager Kyle Dubas expects the team to be nearly at full health. Ilya Mikheyev (wrist) and Jake Muzzin (hand) haven’t been fully cleared to return to play, but he expects both to be ready if play resumes. Forward Andreas Johnsson is recovering from knee surgery, which he underwent on Feb. 19. The Leafs put his timetable for recovery at six months so he could see a return to action should Toronto be playing in August.
Tavares said it’ll be a huge boost for the team to be nearly at full strength.
“I think as you get close to the playoffs, traditionally, there’s always nicks and bruises and things guys are dealing with that, not just us but around the league, every team is going to be pretty much at full strength,” Tavares said. “I think we know when we looked at our team on paper heading into training camp this year, we were really excited about not just our back end, but really top to bottom.
“Group has been built, and certainly we’ve had some great surprises. Some guys elevated over the course of this year that only makes our club better so we got tremendous steps that are only going to continue the competition and help our preparation as we hopefully can get back to the competition in a number of weeks.
“That’ll definitely be a really good strength for us to have everyone healthy and ready to go and have that depth.”
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If the Stanley Cup is awarded this year, it’ll be a road unlike any team has taken before. Dubas is embracing the chaos of the 24-team playoff and is excited for his team to compete for a championship.
“I think there are going to be a lot of interesting results in the qualifying round, just given the nature of things and the delay between the teams last played and different changes to the roster,” Dubas told reporters. “It is unique. I think we’re certainly going to embrace it as a unique experience but also as a tremendous opportunity for our team and for our group.”