Maple Leafs News & Rumors: NHL Restart, Tavares, Lehtonen & Brooks

Over the past few days, news has emerged that there have been intense discussions about how to restart the 2019-20 NHL season. In fact, this morning (May 19), the NHL reported that commissioner Gary Bettman and his people have been looking at “probably eight or nine different places” that would be able to host “a dozen or so teams in one location.”

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Bettman noted that there’s no timetable and that specific issues, such as border crossings and quarantines, need to be resolved; still, there’s talk. More and more, the conversation has moved towards extending the 2019-20 season into the summer and moving the start of the 2020-21 season to later in the calendar year.

Gary Bettman
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman (AP Photo/Charles Krupa, File)

Although it’s hard to read between the lines, the report noted, “The NHL has the flexibility to finish this season by playing in the summer and to delay the start of next season as late as December while playing a full schedule.” This could be a way to prepare fans for what’s likely to happen, or it could one of many ideas floating around; however, it would change regular-season hockey as we know it for the near future.

As these discussions continue inching towards some resolution, in this post I’ll try to help Maple Leafs fans stay up-to-date by sharing news and rumours emerging from the team.

Item One: John Tavares Part of NHL’s Restart Planning

Sports Illustrated’s Alex Prewitt wrote on Monday that Maple Leafs captain John Tavares accepted an invitation to serve on the NHL/NHLPA Return to Play Committee, which is a working group of about a dozen players and executives who are – as their name suggests – trying to figure out if and how the NHL’s regular-season might be completed. He is one of five players on the committee.

John Tavares Toronto Maple Leafs
John Tavares, Toronto Maple Leafs (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

The Sports Illustrated post listed commissioner Gary Bettman, players’ association head Donald Fehr, and Edmonton Oilers’ star Connor McDavid as part of the committee. Tavares reported that the committee had been holding two or three Zoom meetings a week, some being shorter 20-minute check-ins and some being more wide-ranging discussions that timed in at just under two hours.

Lately, however, Tavares reported, “the frequency of calls has certainly picked up quite a bit. We’re getting closer to [having meetings] every other day now, as we try to create some clarity, as best as we can, on many fronts for everyone involved in the hockey world, which would be a really positive thing.”

It’s an honour for Tavares and the Maple Leafs by extension to be invited to join this group, but it’s also a responsibility. Creating a design and a workable schedule is important, but that’s not the only issue. Other issues include the optics of comprehensively mass-testing NHL teams for COVID-19 when the general public may not have access.

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Another issue is how to reshape the game. For example, after a goal, would team hugs be penalized? Will there be a lineup of teammates head-tapping the goalie’s mask after a victory? The game could look completely different for the sake of safety and long-time patterns of behaviour would need to change.

John Tavares Toronto Maple Leafs
John Tavares, Toronto Maple Leafs (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Tavares outlined further complexities: “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. 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.”

The point is that restarting the NHL season is going to be complex. In fact, is it even be possible?

That said, it was promising to hear that Tavares is part of the conversation. Maple Leafs fans should be pleased that their captain is so respected in the NHL.

Item Two: Mikko Lehtonen Named the KHL’s Top Defenseman

It looks like the Maple Leafs signed a really good player when they inked Mikko Lehtonen to an entry-level contract. On May 18, it was reported that the team’s newest addition on defense is coming to Canada with some hockey bling. Lehtonen was just named the KHL’s top defenseman of the 2019-20 season.

Lehtonen led his Jokerit Helsinki team in scoring (with 49 points in 60 games) this season. He was first among defensemen and sixth overall in the KHL’s scoring race. He finished eight points ahead of the second-highest scoring defenseman Slava Voynov (who played four seasons with the Los Angeles Kings). (As an aside, wouldn’t you love a jersey like Lehtonen is wearing in this photo? Do you think he’ll be bored wearing the blue and white of the Maple Leafs?)

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It looks as if general manager Kyle Dubas’ Russian connection continues to provide players. Lehtonen should be helpful for the 2020-21 season. Not only is his contract a bargain, but he’s a quality player. Maple Leafs fans can only hope he’ll be as valuable to the team as Ilya Mikheyev was last season.

Item Three: Maple Leafs’ Black Ace Adam Brooks Extended for Two Years

On May 14, the Maple Leafs announced that they had signed forward Adam Brooks to a two-year, NHL contract extension at a $725,000 average annual value.

Adam Brooks of the Regina Pats
Maple Leafs’ Adam Brooks when he played with the Regina Pats (Keith Hershmiller Photography)

The 24-year-old Brooks recorded three assists in seven Maple Leafs games during the 2019-20 season. He would have become a restricted free agent this offseason.

What’s Next for the Maple Leafs?

As the NHL works to build a successful resolution to the 2019-20 season, it does so in one of the most complicated contexts in NHL history. To make it even more difficult, Tuesday’s breaking news is that Canada and the United States have extended their agreement to keep the border between the two countries closes for non-essential travel for another month.

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Perhaps this will impact the NHL’s plans, or perhaps it fits them just fine. It’s one more thing for Maple Leafs fans to watch out for.