TORONTO — Mitch Marner’s message is simple — things might not always look pretty.
Like a number of NHL players, the Maple Leafs winger has been back on the ice with a small group of teammates working off some considerable rust since the league moved to the voluntary Phase 2 of its return-to-play protocol last week.
Provided that medical and safety conditions allow, it’s hoped training camps will commence July 10 followed the resumption of the pandemic-delayed 2019-20 campaign featuring a 24-team format that would see high-flying Toronto face the gritty Columbus Blue Jackets in one of eight best-of-five qualifying round series.
And Marner knows that contrast in style will present a significant road block in his team’s path to the playoffs.
“Every game’s not gonna be perfect, every game’s not going to be what we want it to be,” Marner said on a conference call Thursday. “It’s going to be a hard game every single game. They come out flying.
“We all recognize that and we all know that’s the challenge at hand.”
Marner said it’s been nice to get back into the Leafs’ practice facility to work out on and off the ice John Tavares, Ilya Mikheyev, Jake Muzzin, Cody Ceci and Jack Campbell. There aren’t any coaches on the ice, players have to physically distance, take temperature tests, wear masks when not exercising, and keep track of a grocery list of other health measures.
But it beats rollerblading in his driveway and logging kilometre after kilometre on the stationary bike.
“It felt weird stepping on the ice,” said Marner, who was off his skates for 10 or 11 weeks. “It felt great to be back on and it felt great to be out there shooting, handling the puck and having fun.”
And he’s been impressed with the league protocols in place to keep everyone safe during his three-hour stints at the rink, which will be crucial as the NHL and the players’ union continue to hammer out the final details on training camps and the 24-team format.
“The NHL has everything under control through what I’ve seen,” he said. “They’re doing all the right things.
“They’re gonna do what’s best for their athletes.”
The Leafs and Blue Jackets both had 81 points from 70 games when the NHL paused its season because of the novel coronavirus on March 12.
Toronto struggled out of the gate, changed coaches in November, and endured an up-and-down campaign where the roster never looked anything like Stanley Cup contenders.
Columbus, meanwhile, survived a mass exodus of star-studded talent in free agency last summer and a number of key injuries during the season, but managed to stay in the post-season conversation.
The Blue Jackets stunned a talent-ladened roster in the first round of last spring’s playoffs with a shocking sweep of the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Tampa Bay Lightning, but Marner said the Leafs only needs to worry about themselves.
“I don’t think we need to change anything,” said the 23-year-old, who finished second on the team in scoring behind Auston Matthews with 67 points despite missing 11 games due to an ankle injury. “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.
“We started really keeping each other accountable.”
The majority of the Leafs’ roster has returned to Toronto for Phase 2, but two notable absences are Matthews, the team’s star centre, and No. 1 goalie Frederik Andersen, who have been waiting out the pandemic together in Arizona.
But Marner, who’s close with both players, said he hasn’t been bugging them to head north, knowing that as it stands, each would have to quarantine for 14 days after entering Canada.
“All this stuff’s voluntary,” he said. “If they 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.”
But this slow jog getting ready for a potential return will soon turn into a sprint.
“It’s gonna be a weird feeling,” Marner said. “It’s making sure every day we’re going to dial in everything in our game.
“We know (Columbus) is a very hard-fight team, and we gotta be ready for it.”
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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press