Maple Leafs’ John Tavares on ‘sense of urgency’ to finalize restart format

NHL insider Chris Johnston joins Sportsnet Today to discuss why he feels if the NHL goes with a 24-team playoffs to determine a Stanley Cup champion, then it would let the genie out of the bottle for future playoff expansion.

While the NHL’s 2019-20 campaign remains suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the league’s Return to Play Committee continues to push ahead on trying to figure out what exactly a potential return would look like, if one is eventually able to come about.

According to Calgary Flames GM Brad Treliving, per Sportsnet’s Eric Francis, news on a potential return-to-play format could come as soon as this week, as talks among the committee have picked up. On Monday, we highlighted four key issues that could soon be sorted out, in fact — the potential hub cities, the return-to-play format as a whole, the draft lottery and the 2020 NHL Draft itself.

In an interview with Sports Illustrated‘s Alex Prewitt published Monday, Toronto Maple Leafs captain John Tavares echoed the sentiment that the Return to Play Committee is pushing towards finalizing a restart format sooner rather than later.

Tavares told Prewitt there is a “great sense of urgency” among the Return to Play Committee — which includes Tavares, fellow star Connor McDavid, commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr, among others — to finalize what exactly the league’s potential return might look like. “Obviously when [exactly] that will be, we don’t know … But in terms of how to finish the season, and how to award the Stanley Cup, I think we want to get something figured out soon.”

The Maple Leafs pivot said providing some clarity on a potential format would be beneficial to all involved, granting time to adjust to the “new normal” that will need to be established.

“We’ve obviously gone a pretty significant amount of time in terms of following the stay-at-home protocols, social distancing, not being able to go to team facilities and train,” Tavares told Prewitt. “Mentally it’s challenging to not really know. We still have so many unknowns. We really can’t answer a lot of stuff. But if we’re able to at least understand what coming back will look like, if we’re able to come back, it can give a little bit of clarity so everyone can wrap their head and mentally prepare for what things may look and feel like.

“Because it’ll obviously be very different than what we’re used to on a daily basis. It’s going to be a new normal, if we’re going to be able to play, or when.”

As reported by Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman, the 24-team structure appears to be the most-discussed option up to this point. Tavares confirmed as much, telling Prewitt it’s been “kicked around the most,” but that nothing has been officially decided yet.

However, the former New York Islander added that he’s not yet sold on the 24-team format.

“I’m not sure I’m completely 100 per cent sold on any format,” Tavares told Sports Illustrated. “But the biggest thing is honouring the regular season as best as we can while still giving each team that deserves the opportunity, or still has an opportunity to make the playoffs, to be a part of that.” 

Aside from the overall structure of the league’s potential return, Tavares touched on more specific details in need of addressing, too, with the amount of contact involved in everyday NHL life sure to necessitate guidelines extending into all aspects of movement in and around the game.

“I’m sure when you come to the rink, the entrance you come in, how you interact, the normal things you do that you take for granted on a daily basis will be a lot different,” Tavares told Prewitt. “There’s a lot of talk about temperature checks, the possibilities of wearing masks … that’s all the stuff we’re discussing. What’s safe? What’s not? What makes sense? What doesn’t? Is this possible? Is this not? There’s so many different things to cover and it continues to evolve.”

There’s also the matter of players’ families and how they fit into the potential plan of having players relocate to hub cities for an extended period while the post-season is played out. The Maple Leafs captain called that aspect a “focal point” of any return-to-play plan.

“Obviously the family situation has been paramount. From the get-go, the league has continued to talk about understanding those concerns,” Tavares told Prewitt.

“A lot of the calls we’ve had have been very positive that way. That continues to be a focal point in terms of the things that have to check the boxes for us, and for the league as well.”

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