TORONTO — It happens so seldom that, in his 10 years an NHLer, John Tavares has no trouble recalling the precise circumstances surrounding the one time it did.
In April 2016, with a first-round playoff series versus Florida etched in stone, New York Islanders coach Jack Capuano approached his captain and best player and suggested he sit the final game of the regular season, despite Tavares’s clean bill of health and the fact he had a four-game goal streak running.
“Our schedule was nuts. We played Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday, Sunday, or something like that,” Tavares says.
Exactly like that, to the day. The Isles’ schedule was extra busy three springs ago because they had to cram in a weather-postponed date from earlier that winter.
“We had, like, five games in a week. It was unusual, so he came to me [with the idea of being a healthy scratch],” Tavares explains.
Even under such a hefty workload — I get sleepy if I watch five hockey games a week — and even though we could argue No. 91’s extra rest paid off when it mattered most in that Panthers series, Tavares felt reluctant slipping into a suit instead of a sweater for that meaningless April 10, 2016 date with the Flyers. So he hit the gym and focused on his training and treatment.
“I take pride in playing a whole season and being durable,” he says. “That’s what this is all about — being in the NHL, being a pro. You want to be out there. You want to play. You work so hard all summer to be available, so play. At least that’s the way I feel.”
As the Toronto Maple Leafs’ top-line centre continues the most goal-happy campaign of his career — Monday he hit Florida with four, and his 45 goals, 86 points and plus-20 rating are all personal bests — there is zero chance he’ll request an extra day off to rest up for what will be a physically daunting Round 1 matchup versus Boston, a best-of-seven ramming head-to-head with Patrice Bergeron and the sport’s most complete trio.
The topic of load management has popped up in Toronto because (a) the Leafs’ Scotiabank Arena roomies, the Raptors, are all about resting their big weapons for the second season. (At a cozy 54 games played, Kawhi Leonard could contend for the “Pajama Boy” nickname, no?) And (b) the hockey team’s fate might as well be etched in stone.
According to the handy SportsClubStats.com, a site that turns your playoff hunches into math, it’s a 95 per cent lock that the Bruins finish second and the Leafs third in the Atlantic Division.
In other words, go ahead and book a non-refundable flight to Beantown for the second weekend in April.
Yet and still, the notion of granting Leafs veterans a couple nights off down the stretch has been coolly received. Being a healthy scratch leaves an unhealthy aftertaste, even if it may be in a team’s best interest.
Defenceman Ron Hainsey, 38, certainly didn’t warm to the idea when it was broached by colleague Chris Johnston Friday.
And if you think coach Mike Babcock will be the one volunteering to snuff out 39-year-old Patrick Marleau’s 10 years of perfect attendance, think again.
“Playoff time for guys like Patty is like the fountain of youth,” Babcock said. “He’ll just get better and more energized as we go.”
It’s simply not the hockey way, at least not yet.
“You see a lot of that go on in the NBA,” Tavares said. “For me, I enjoy playing. You don’t take playing at this level for granted.
“You want to be out there. It’s fun, no matter the situation. Playing in this league is what it’s all about.”
Teammate Nazem Kadri has been kind of scuffling along since returning from a concussion earlier this month and needs to be one of the most physically engaged Leafs at TD Garden, but he won’t be requesting rest either.
Toronto wraps its regular season on April 6 and likely won’t start Round 1 until April 11, a full four days off to lick their wounds and steel their minds. That’s plenty of downtime, Kadri argues.
“You don’t want too much time off because once playoffs come, it’s a different type of intensity and a different type of quickness. You don’t want to be rusty,” Kadri says.
“Every athlete wants to play every game. The fans pay good money to see some entertainment, and we take pride in entertaining and putting a good product on the ice. I think every guy in here wouldn’t look to go that [rest] avenue. I mean, NBA and NHL cultures are just completely opposite, so I don’t see it happening.”
If ever there were a season to test that way of thinking, however, this is the one.
Standings-wise, the Leafs have little to compete for, which is partly why defencemen Travis Dermott and Jake Gardiner won’t be hastily rushed back into action.
Anyone with a nagging ailment or weak legs should at least consider bonus rest. But the way hockey works and the way, internally, some Leafs are still competing for minutes in the bottom half of the roster, that dialogue must be initiated by Babcock.
Just as Capuano was the one who prevented Tavares from playing six games in nine days at the end of 2016.
“It’s a conversation you can have with them, for sure, if you’re in a spot you want to be in,” Babcock said.
“I’ve had lots of veterans over the years, and I’ve had lots of different discussions. I’ve had guys even want to play back-to-back before they go in [to the playoffs] because depending on when you start — Wednesday or Thursday — there’s a good break anyway. You’re not used to that much time off.
“We’ll just talk to them and make that decision based on what their needs are and how they feel and what their health is like.”
During our conversation, Tavares explained how much satisfaction NHLers take in seeing an 82 under the GP column on their stats page.
Dallas’s Tyler Seguin told me the same thing in the summer of 2017 when, after seven NHL seasons, he’d finally hit that magic number — lacing up through pain and a string of meaningless outings for a lottery-bound squad to do it.
In Toronto, Hainsey is on pace for his first ’82’ since 2013-14, Morgan Rielly his first since 2015-16. Mitch Marner and Tavares are going for two in a row. Connor Brown three.
Jake Muzzin, swapped mid-season, is tracking the elusive 83 GP.
The iPhone 3 was the hot device last time Marleau sat.
Like it or not, pride bulldozes its way through the sports-science lab and into the equation.
“Absolutely. It’s not an easy thing. Everyone understands and respects what the 82-game grind is like, all the travel and all the things you go through over the course of a year,” said Tavares, now within striking distance of the big 5-0.
“You feel the fatigue more and more night after night, and there’s a lot of work that goes into being able to do that for 82 games, keeping yourself fresh, consistent and being able to play.”
With the luxury/danger of six games of minimal consequence remaining, expect the old rest-versus-rust debate to continue.