Maple Leafs’ Tavares sees camp with Keefe as ‘added bonus’ of NHL’s plan

Breaking down the playoff matchup between the Maple Leafs and Blue Jackets in the proposed 24-team NHL postseason format with Shawn McKenzie, Chris Johnston & Steve Dangle.

As the calendar creeps closer towards June and the tally nears four months without live hockey in North America, silver linings for Canada’s favourite game on ice have been hard to come by.

The NHL offered one earlier this week, with commissioner Gary Bettman unveiling the framework of the league’s four-phase plan to resume amid the COVID-19 pandemic if it becomes safe to do so. But the multitudes contained in that “if” are still daunting. The novel coronavirus does not care when the NHL would like to come back, after all.

Toronto Maple Leafs captain John Tavares knows how many hurdles remain, how many hairpin turns could send the league back to square one, but still believes there’s a “really good chance” hockey is played this summer. So leave it to Tavares, that even-keeled, blue-and-white wearing optimist, to look deeper into hockey’s foggy future and find another light hiding within, too.

“We’ve got to be looking forward to what’s ahead, an opportunity to kind of reset here,” Tavares told Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman during Sportsnet’s #Ask31 Live on Thursday. “[It will be] a good opportunity to get a training camp under [head coach Sheldon Keefe], which we never really got.

“So kind of a little almost added bonus is, with a new coach, you get to really implement a lot more things …and really get those true reps that you need. Which you really can’t get in the season, especially as the season goes on, and the wear and tear, and the rest becomes very valuable. I think that’s definitely a benefit we’re going to get.”

Coaching a team with Stanley Cup aspirations is never easy, and assuming the role mid-season as Keefe did adds another layer of complexities to the mix — implementing redesigned lineups and systems on the fly, all while knowing there’s less room for error because there are fewer games left to be played.

In the 39 games he’s spent guiding the Maple Leafs’ on-ice performance, Keefe has gone 27-15 while ushering in a more free-wheeling — albeit not always consistent — offence that made use of Toronto’s wealth of offensive talent and saw them score the fourth-most goals in the league during his tenure, while posting the second-best power-play success rate.

If that’s what he could cook up in half a season on short notice, there’s at least the chance the time off to examine the ingredients in Toronto’s cupboard and a mini-camp to sample how they mix together could yield a more enticing final product.

Earlier Thursday, Friedman reported that players were informed Phase 3 of the NHL’s Return to Play Plan — the phase which includes training camps — won’t start before July 10. So that “added bonus” and any of its potential benefits is still a ways away for Tavares, Keefe and the rest of the Maple Leafs.

And if Tavares’ optimism is well-placed, if camps can be held, hockey can return and a Stanley Cup can be played for, there will be at least one more new face potentially joining him on the Maple Leafs: OHL standout Nick Robertson.

“I can imagine being in Nick’s shoes and just your hair standing up on end, getting an opportunity to be part of the team in a unique situation like this — an opportunity to help us win a Stanley Cup,” Tavares said.

Expectations accompany opportunities like that, certainly. And nerves, probably. Putting on a Maple Leafs jersey means wearing the hopes of a championship-starved fan base too — not a simple experience for an 18-year-old, to say the least.

Tavares is no stranger to shouldering that weight. He chose it, after all, deciding to sign with Toronto as a free agent, and with that familiarity comes advice for how to navigate it.

“You’re here for a reason,” Tavares said. “You shouldn’t feel that you need to walk on egg shells. You need to be yourself, you need to play like yourself. Never take anything for granted, you gotta go out there and work and earn it — that’s what playing at this level [means].

“…There’s a reason why you’re here and what brought you here, so don’t forget those things. And be yourself. You’re a part of the team, you’re a part of our group, and you mean as much to our team and our success as any one of our core guys.”

Watch Thursday’s edition of #Ask31 Live with John Tavares in its entirety below:

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