Friday was a scary day for hockey. First, there was a report that multiple members of the Tampa Bay Lightning organization had tested positive for COVID-19 and the team temporarily closed its training facilities. Second, in news closer to home for the Toronto Maple Leafs, superstar Auston Matthews and a number of Arizona Coyotes also tested positive.
By the end of the day, the NHL reported that more than five percent of the players tested positive (11 positive cases out of 200 players tested). Over the weekend, there was a lot of discussion about the return to play.
In this post, I want to share Mitch Marner’s thoughts about a return to the ice. He was interviewed late last week after he and a small group of his teammates began Phase 2 preparations to restart the 2019-20 season. Marner noted how nice it was to get back into the Maple Leafs’ practise facility to work out both on and off the ice. The players who were part of that small group included John Tavares, Ilya Mikheyev, Jake Muzzin, Cody Ceci, and Jack Campbell.
Marner, who had been off skates for 11 weeks, noted that working out in the practice facility beat rollerblading in his driveway and pumping kilometre after kilometre on his stationary bike. “It felt weird stepping on the ice,” he said. “It felt great to be back on and it felt great to be out there shooting, handling the puck and having fun.”
Marner Thought #1: About the Style of Play to Expect in the Postseason
Marner was feeling the rust, because when he was interviewed his message to fans was that, if the 2019-20 season resumes, “things might not always look pretty.”
Marner knows that contrast in style might present a significant roadblock to his team’s path to the playoffs. A skill-based team like the Maple Leafs might need more time to get in sync than a team that relies on physical play and defense like the Columbus Blue Jackets.
“Every game’s not gonna be perfect, every game’s not going to be what we want it to be,” Marner said during last Thursday’s conference. “It’s going to be a hard game every single game.”
Marner Thought #2: About the Safety Measures the NHL Has Required
During Marner’s first on-ice practices, there weren’t any coaches on the ice, players had to physically distance, take temperature tests, wear masks when not exercising, and keep track of a “grocery list” of other health measures. He noted that he approves of safety protocols and was impressed with NHL protocols in place to keep everyone safe during his three-hour stints at the rink.
These safety precautions will be crucial for the NHL and the players’ union to make decisions about the final details of training camps and the 24-team format.
“The NHL has everything under control through what I’ve seen.” Marner believed. “They’re doing all the right things…They’re gonna do what’s best for their athletes.”
Ironically, the Marner interview took place the day before it was reported that Matthews had tested positive for COVID-19. Without knowing, when Marner was asked about Matthews and goalie Frederik Andersen, he noted that, although he is close to both players, he hadn’t been bugging them to return to Toronto because he knew that each would need to quarantine for 14 days after entering Canada.
He noted that, “If they (Matthews and Andersen) think that it’s better for them to stay at home and do all their workouts and skating there then I’m all for it.” Obviously, there was a hiccup in that plan.
Marner Thought #3: About Playing the Columbus Blue Jackets
Marner noted that the Blue Jackets would “come out flying” and recognized the Maple Leafs knew the challenge ahead of them.
“It’s gonna be a weird feeling. It’s making sure every day we’re going to dial in everything in our game,” he admitted. “We know [Columbus] is a very hard-fight team, and we gotta be ready for it.”
The Maple Leafs and Blue Jackets both ended up with 81 points when the NHL suspended its season on March 12. However, each team took a different path to those 81 points. Toronto struggled until they replaced head coach Mike Babcock with Sheldon Keefe in November. Then, the team had an up-and-down season with an injury-impacted roster and a defense held together with duct tape.
The Blue Jackets had a more powerful roster during the 2018-19 season and pulled off a stunning sweep of last season’s Presidents’ Trophy-winning Tampa Bay Lightning. This season, the team survived an offseason exodus of star-studded talent through free agency and overcame a number of key injuries to make the postseason.
Marner’s assessment is that his team only needs to worry about themselves. “I don’t think we need to change anything. It’s just making sure when we get out there we’re doing all the small things, we’re doing it right, we’re doing it correctly.”
What’s Next for the Maple Leafs?
Providing that medical and safety conditions will allow it, training camp should begin on July 10 followed by the resumption of the pandemic-delayed 2019-20 campaign featuring a 24-team playoff format. However, after last week’s news that Matthews and about a dozen other NHL players have been infected during Phase 2 activities, we’ll learn more this week about what will happen.