John Tavares takes first steps toward getting comfortable with Leafs

NIAGARA FALLS, Ont. – This is the new normal for John Tavares.

Fans lined up along one side of an arena complex and around the other, stretching all the way back into an adjacent street. Some brought sleeping bags and camped overnight just to gain access to a Toronto Maple Leafs training camp that has taken hype to an even higher level than usual this weekend thanks to the presence of No. 91.

“I think it’s just nice that it’s finally real,” Tavares said, echoing the thoughts of many in these parts. “Let’s get into it, let’s get comfortable, let’s push ourselves to get better.”

There has been a lot to soak in for a routine-oriented individual. Different schedules and a different way of doing things. Plus new coaches, new teammates and a push to find comfort with wingers Mitch Marner and Zach Hyman as soon as possible.

There is also the matter of what he left behind by spurning an aggressive push from the New York Islanders to sign a $77-million, seven-year contract with the Leafs in free agency. Lou Lamoriello – the general manager who made the opposite move, from Toronto to the Island, this off-season – has since said there’s “no aftermath” for his organization to deal with because of the Tavares departure.

“Players come and go,” Lamoriello told the New York Post earlier this week. “It’s different if they had won championships. It’s different if they had had a lot of success. They haven’t done much — and I don’t say that with any disrespect. Haven’t been to the playoffs the last couple years. Things haven’t worked out the way everybody would have liked them to, from what my understanding is.”

Those were biting comments that featured an interesting interpretation of history. Absent was any mention of how incapable Islanders ownership and management consistently showed itself of building a contender around a two-time Hart Trophy finalist.

Yet, following his second day of practice and scrimmages with his new team, Tavares elected to take the high road when asked about Lamoriello’s comments.

“Well, I mean, you look at my time there and in the nine years we made the playoffs three times and we got past the first round once,” Tavares said Saturday. “We obviously fell short of where we wanted to get to and we didn’t have as much consistent success as we’d like and being the captain there as long as I was, I should shoulder a lot of that responsibility in not doing a good enough job and leading that team.

“It’s always something that I wish I could have done a better job, but I know I gave it everything I had. Looking back, I have no regrets in the way I performed or the way I prepared and the way I approached each and every day.”

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His best should be more than good enough to help a burgeoning Leafs team keep striding forward.

There’s been plenty of talk behind the scenes in the organization about the need to control the puck more in the offensive zone. The Leafs were the NHL’s third-highest scoring outfit last season but felt they relied a little too much on rush attacks rather than establishing a presence along the boards and wearing down opponents.

In pairing Tavares with a workhorse like Hyman and an elusive offensive artist like Marner, they hope to create an antidote to that tendency. What the veteran centre does better than most is control the puck down low – how many players not named Sidney Crosby could do this? – and a noticeably beefed-up Marner said he spent the summer working on his release in anticipation of the scoring opportunities that should create.

“I need to just become more of a shooter, I think,” said Marner.

The early training camp scrimmages are a long way from what we’ll see in real games, but you could see the trio finding a little more comfort together on Saturday. Marner and Tavares kept an active dialogue after each shift. They also connected on a goal by J.T.

Mike Babcock is planning to find those two some extra ice time in penalty-killing situations. The Islanders deployed Tavares at 4-on-5 the last two seasons, but Marner hasn’t done it regularly since junior. The coach envisions them finishing off kills behind the forward tandems of Hyman/Connor Brown and Kasperi Kapanen/Par Lindholm.

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“But they’ve got to be good killers. It’s not just ‘it’s a good theory and it’s good for their ice time,’” said Babcock. “I don’t care about that. I like winning.”

You’re hearing more talk about winning than usual at the outset of this camp. Adding Tavares to a team that matched the eventual Stanley Cup champions in the regular-season standings last year has raised the bar. (Not to mention sweater sales, judging by all of the crisp No. 91s walking around Gale Centre these last few days).

Prior to Tavares hitting free agency, there were some in the industry who felt he’d be reluctant to come to Toronto because of the hoopla that comes with it. He grew up in the fishbowl as a phenom granted exceptional status into the Ontario Hockey League at age 15 and had settled into a little more anonymity with the Islanders.

But those people overlooked a fiercely competitive streak and his desire to chase greatness.

“I think there’s a lot to prove,” said Tavares, with a new Leafs cap pulled low over his forehead. “I think resting on what you’ve already done is where you can kind of get caught, especially as your career goes on. I think every day, each season, you have to go out and prove yourself again and prove what type of player you are.”

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Post Author: HockeyHawk