They’re only going a few steps from their Bay St. home, but the Bubble Buds are about to take a trip that’s unprecedented in their 103-year history.
“There’s a sense of adventure to it for sure,” said defenceman Tyson Barrie on Saturday before he and 51 other Maple Leafs, coaches and staffers had one last sleep in their own beds before reporting to the NHL’s COVID-19 safe house.
“We don’t totally know what the set-up will be like. It’s excitement, a bit of nerves, but we’re ready to get it going. The whole thing’s a bit bizarre. It’s the end of July and we’re at the rink. It’s a weird climate, but I’m glad we were able to sort something out and finish these playoffs. We’re lucky to be able to play.”
As the Leafs held one last practice at the Ford Performance Centre, directional dressing room signs and rival team banners were going up all around them. Toronto is the Eastern Conference hub for 12 of the 24 clubs in the Stanley Cup tournament. Like the other 11, the Leafs will be confined to a hotel — practice rink — Scotiabank Arena bubble, in their case quartered at the Royal York with a dedicated walkway there and back to maintain quarantine.
When they play the Montreal Canadiens in an exhibition Tuesday, ahead of Game 1 of the best-of-five opening series against Columbus next Sunday, it’ll be the Leafs’ first action since the NHL shuttered on March 12 in Covid’s shadow.
“This felt like a long time coming,” said winger Zach Hyman. “We didn’t know if it would happen (through weeks of small-group practices, then a two-week training camp). Everyone is healthy and the unique thing is now we’ll be with each other 24/7.”
Each member of the Leaf pod will get a final Covid test Sunday morning, spend a final few hours with family, then board a bus for the bubble. Seven teams are at the Royal York, five at Hotel X on the CNE grounds, handy to Coca-Cola Coliseum and BMO Field for outdoor activities.
Dining, team lounges and recreational activities are planned for both sites, with an eye to isolated excursions for clubs that make it to the next round. Edmonton, the Western hub, will also host the four conference finalists and the Cup championship.
Like Columbus counterpart John Tortorella, Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe is anxious to get settled in the bubble environment.
“I’m curious how it’s all going to flow,” Keefe said. “You’ve got so many teams occupying the same hotel, the same space. We’re just going through some of the logistics, the simple facts; how many people allowed in the elevators at a particular time, the nature of the practices. There’s going to be overlap; teams trying to leave at the same time. We’re trying to remain very flexible.”
The Leafs’ final playoff roster was established at 30 as of Saturday night, though Keefe’s starters have been determined based on practice lines in the main group. He’s settled on Auston Matthews between Hyman and William Nylander, with Ilya Mikheyev, voted MVP of the scrimmage tournament by the media and back from wrist surgery, on the left with centre John Tavares and Mitch Marner.
While coy about where rookie Nick Robertson fits, the kid did more penalty kill drills, ending the day on left with centre Alex Kerfoot and Kasperi Kapanen. With Kyle Clifford, Pierre Engvall and Jason Spezza strung across the fourth line, Frederik Gauthier was not attached, but Keefe insisted the exhibition game would determine a lot.
Defence pairings didn’t change through camp, so Rasmus Sandin and Martin Marincin are the extras who’ve been with the starters’ with Calle Rosen and the “unfit to play” Timothy Liljegren added from the taxi squad for insurance, making 10 defencemen. Kasimir Kaskisuo and Joseph Woll join Frederik Andersen and Jack Campbell as third and fourth goalies, respectively.
That left a couple of reserve spots on the roster for forwards Nic Petan, Denis Malgin and the injured Andreas Johnsson, whose knee surgery likely sidelines him until later rounds if Toronto gets that far. Forwards Tyler Gaudet, Egor Korshkov, Adam Brooks, Kenny Agostino and defencemen Teemu Kivihalme and Mac Hollowell were not posted Saturday.
LET’S GET PHYSICAL
The Blue Jackets held an off-ice workout Saturday and flew to Toronto, coach John Tortorella as anxious as Keefe to get an exhibition game in after inter-squad matches became a drudge. Both coaches want to see their teams turn it up physically, after weeks of laying off heavy hits because of injury risk.
The Jackets play the Bruins in a friendly on Thursday and all 24 clubs want to see the newly installed ice in both hub sites and how it handles the heat. They also want to check out the backdrop art around the lower bowl that will replace fans, the piped in crowd noise, music and dressing room set up.
“Momentum wise, a crowd can make you uncomfortable,” reminded Hyman. “When you’re in a game, really playing and doing well, you don’t really notice it as much. But when you’re the home team and you score, and the fans go crazy, it puts more pressure on the away team to handle that. Obviously there’s not home ice advantage here.”
All clubs will be moved around three different dressing rooms at SBA depending on home teams as each series unfolds and as rooms are sanitized between games. The Leafs will eventually be out of their room and on the visiting bench.
Hyman and wife Alannah found out early during the NHL hiatus they’ll be expecting their first child in December. So it’ll be a little harder for him to be separated if the Leafs go two or three rounds. Alannah will stay with Hyman’s family during the tournament, though Hyman was quick to say those Leafs with kids or whose partners are further along with pregnancies will have it harder in the coming days.
Asked which Leaf would likely have the best parental advice for him, Hyman knew whom to put on speed dial.
“Jason Spezza, he has four (daughters),” laughed Hyman.
For bedtime stories, Spezza sometimes uses one of the children’s books Hyman has authored the past few years. Hyman had to stop work on his latest project to attend camp, but might pick it up while in the bubble.
Pickleball, a combination of tennis, ping pong and badminton, is on the games’ list for Leafs with off-ice down time … Matthews knows a little Russian and is using it to better communicate with newcomer Mikheyev: “He’s trying. Not bad,” Mikheyev said … There will be radio of Leaf games starting with Tuesday’s exhibition. Joe Bowen and Jim Ralph will call them in studio, depending on whether Sportsnet or TSN has the rights.