Listing the concerns of the Toronto Maple Leafs as their training camp in St. John’s next month looms goes something like this:
Sign Mitch Marner, mute any talk about Mike Babcock’s future, get Zach Hyman and Travis Dermott healthy, set a plan on defence with newcomers Tyson Barrie and Cody Ceci, determine a backup goalie, and integrate the new assistant coaches and any other recent player additions.
What the club shouldn’t fret about is John Tavares, spared scrutiny after being as good as advertised in the first of his seven-year, $77-million US contract. He had a team-high 47 goals, recorded 93 points (including the playoffs), and didn’t miss a game.
While Tavares agreed he’s enjoying the calm compared to one summer ago when he was talk of the town, that doesn’t mean he’s in cruise mode.
At an informal workout this week, Tavares was certainly working up a sweat with a group of teammates, old and new, including offensive drills with GTA pal Jason Spezza. Tavares is approaching his 11th NHL season.
“The hunger is always there, you just appreciate it more and just don’t want to take any year for granted,” Tavares said. “Careers are so short.”
Tavares skipped much of this traditional August conditioning at the team’s training base last year, with a wedding to get through on top of a tidal wave of interest that followed his leaving the New York Islanders for his boyhood team.
Now he’s strictly channeling adrenalin toward the Oct. 2 season-opener against Ottawa in hopes he and the 36-year-old Spezza set good examples this month for rookies such as Yegor Korshkov and Jeremy Bracco, among who practised with the vets this week.
“It’s great, it gets you excited again that camp and the season are around the corner,” he said. “We want to get back at it, build off of last year (100 points, but another first-round playoff loss), have a better ending.
“Whether it’s guys we’ve acquired who’ve already established themselves or even a lot of our prospects, it’s big. As I play more in the league, you think about when you were young and how these guys are excited to be out here with a lot of the veterans.
“It really pushes guys like myself, because you see (younger players’) development and skill set. You work with them, find ways to get better and develop chemistry, culture and an identity within the organization, top to bottom, to have a team that’s going to be good a long time.”
Growlers’ Elynuik checks in
In case you forgot, the Leafs are going on 53 years without a Stanley Cup.
But for the second straight camp, they’ll benefit from players who had short summers after winning a minor-league title. After the Marlies hoisted the Calder Cup in 2018, the ECHL Newfoundland Growlers won the Kelly Cup. Growlers expected at camp this year include big centre Hudson Elynuik.
“Any time you get a chance to go that far in playoffs and win a championship, it’s going to help in different areas,” said Elynuik, another early arrival to the summer skates. “Being able to get through a long regular season and still have an impact in the playoffs is definitely a good sign.”
At the end, the Growlers had to travel hundreds of miles west to play the Toledo Walleye in the final. They lost coach Ryane Clowe early in the season when concussion symptoms from his playing days flared up, with John Snowden taking his place.
“The adversity our team faced … that’s one of the coolest things I’ve ever done,” Elynuik said. “It was electric (on June 4, championship night in St. John’s). Every person I’ve ever met in Newfoundland is kind, open and they take people in. They have a lot of history there.”
Elynuik was an unsigned third-round draft pick of the Hurricanes before signing with the Marlies last year. His father, Pat, won a Memorial Cup with the WHL’s Prince Albert Raiders and played 526 NHL games. In a veteran-laden Leafs farm system, the 6-foot-5 Hudson found his groove with the Growlers in his first pro season, after 86 points his last junior year with the WHL Spokane Chiefs.
Like the big trophy, all winners are supposed to get a day with the Kelly Cup, but when it was on its Western Canadian leg this week, Elynuik was with the Leafs.
“We had some unreal times with it,” said Elynuik. “I’m sure guys are having a good time with the Cup, their family and friends.
“I’d never won something like that before. Now my goal is to win another championship. There’s no feeling like it.”