By Victoria Nicolaou
It’s been an exciting and unusual summer for both John Tavares and the Toronto Maple Leafs.
A team that spent years scraping the bottom of the NHL finished the season with a talented, young up-and-coming team and then surprised the world by signing one of the top players in the league in free agency.
Tavares signed with the Maple Leafs this off-season after nine seasons in New York, captain for five, with the New York Islanders. A self-proclaimed childhood Leafs fan, Tavares made the difficult decision to leave the only professional team he had ever known for a chance to play for his hometown team.
When he tweeted out his decision to join Toronto, Tavares included a photo of himself as a young boy sleeping, wrapped in a Maple Leafs blankets.
Expectations for the team immediately skyrocketed. For a team that hasn’t won a playoff round since 2014, the Leafs quickly became the betting favorites to win the 2019 Stanley Cup, usurping the Tampa Bay Lightning who had top odds immediately followed the 2018 season.
As Tarvares starts a new chapter of his life in Toronto, he’s trying to define a new normal. Whatever that may mean.
“It’s all new so it’s hard to say that its normal but I think being on the ice and playing a game and the way I approach I think is all normal to me,” said Tavares. “The more you do it, the more comfortable you get…a lot of those things you think about become instinctive. Just become habit.”
Leafs coach Mike Babcock didn’t see any lingering effects from Tavares’ eventful summer, but he did see improvements after the first day of training camp.
“I expect him to be better tomorrow and keep getting better,” said Babcock during camp. “And as he learns how we play and the nuances of what we want him to do, I think that will help him get up to speed and get going.”
Despite all the expectations placed on Tavares, he has shouldered them well after a slower start to training camp in Niagara Falls a few weeks ago. In his first two pre-season games, Tavares registered four goals and one assist. Two of those goals came Friday night – his first on his new home-ice.
Learning a new system, as well as his new teammates, will be an on-going process but Tavares knows what he can do until he figures it all out. “I think my approach just coming to the rink and the way I prepare and step on the ice and try to play the game, I think all that is normal,” said Tavares. “Just trying to be myself.”
Babcock has played Tavares alongside right winger Mitch Marner during training camp scrimmages, and through the first two games of the pre-season. Expectation are Babcock will continue to do so moving forward.
He also plans to use Tavares and Marner together at the end of penalty kills, trying to transition from a defensive to offensive position immediately.
Tavares gained some experience with penalty kills while on the Islanders. Despite the ups and downs he encountered over the last few years on the defensive end, Tavares knows time on that side of the ice has elevated his game.
“Definitely learned a lot of things…I take a lot of pride in going out there and being able to shut down the other team’s best players being down a man,” said Tavares.
Tavares also discovered the benefits of playing alongside Marner, who’s elite skating talent and quickness Tavares believes will be a huge asset. “I’ll just let him skate and I’ll sit back and watch,” said Tarvares lightheartedly.
The pressure Marner can put on opposing players opens up potential opportunities in the offensive zone. Tavares added, “We can be dangerous especially with (Marner’s) ability to kind of be as quick as he is.”
The combination of Tavares and Marner on the ice has left an impression through the first few weeks of the pre-season.
“Offensive talent is just off the charts,” said center Nazem Kadri. “A good mixture of hustle, talent, goal scoring and playmaking so they certainly have a little bit of everything.”
Even though the results have been positive so far, Kadri was quick to temper expectations. “You can’t expect crazy results off the start. They’ve got to feel each other out, they’ve got to start to understand where they are going to be and once that chemistry happens more connections start to happen.”
Marner agreed, emphasizing the time left before opening day to figure out each other’s tendencies. “Just learning where we want to be with each other,” said Marner of the new relationship.
“There’s some plays out there…where we got back and talked to each other and figure out where we like to go on those plays…there’s going to be time to get a better feel for each other.”
Tavares’ on-ice play has already left an impression on his teammates. Marner marveled at the strength, intelligence and deception Tavares has shown with the puck. “He can make plays out of nothing,” said Marner. “I look forward to playing with him.”
Defenceman Travis McDermott spoke during camp about Tavares’ skill on the ice. “These little plays he makes in tight with the puck control…is something really interesting to watch and it’ll be fun to play with,” said McDermott.
Tavares and the Leafs will open their season at home against the Montreal Canadiens on Oct. 3 at the newly re-named Scotiabank Arena.
Odds and Ends
As captain, Tavares took responsibility for the Islanders lack of success during his nine seasons. “I wish I could’ve done a better job. But I know I gave it everything I had and looking back I have no regrets in the way I performed or the way I prepared,” said Tavares.
“The years he’s been here I’ve just been trying to pick his brain a bit and I’ve learned a ton off him already,” said centre Nazem Kadri. “He’s had a great career and he certainly knows how to handle himself and seems like to comes back every summer in even better shape. I’m not quite sure how he does it.”