A six-game road trip should be a return to normal for the Maple Leafs


As things have turned out, the Maple Leafs’ holiday break, extended by a rash of COVID cases and game postponements, has had the feel of a mid-season training camp followed by a couple of pre-season games.

In some ways, it’s not ideal. Auston Matthews points scoring streak ended at 10 games, and he has been pointless in the two games played since the Leafs’ season resumed. And the two home games — the nationally televised Saturday and Wednesday games — were played to a largely empty building. But goalie Jack Campbell, who had carried far more of the early season-load than initially anticipated, got some rest.

The whole team was shut down for COVID at once and more or less got over it at the same time. It’s not the dribs and drabs approach — two or three players at a time — that has hamstrung other teams.

And the Leafs won their first two games back, though the games were choppy and the opponents (Ottawa and Edmonton) were hit by COVID cases and other injuries.

“It feels like we’re still working our way back towards being the team that we need to be,” Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said. “We’ll get a good practice day (Friday) and get ourselves out on the road. That’s going to feel a lot more like the NHL and it feels like we’re ramping up towards that.

“And it’s going to be a difficult road trip for us, very challenging teams that we’re playing.

Now, after that practice on Friday, they’ll head out to Colorado to start what looks like a weird six-game road trip. It’s Colorado to Vegas to Arizona to St. Louis to New York, for a game against the Rangers and a rescheduled one against the Islanders.

In truth, they’ll come home between St. Louis and New York for a few practices, filling in the time where a home game against New Jersey has been postponed. And who knows, COVID could still change a few things, or the league could yet try to squeeze in a game here and there during some of the gaps.

The Leafs have nine games to reschedule: road games in Calgary, Vancouver, Seattle, Columbus and Montreal; home games against the Blues, Penguins, Hurricanes and Devils. What should have been a break for non-Olympians — Feb. 6-22 — won’t be much of one. And a busy last half of the schedule should get even busier.

“I don’t know how it’s all going to shake out in the end,” Keefe said.

The hope is that the Leafs’ next home game, currently set for Jan. 26 against the Anaheim Ducks, will be played with fans in attendance, that this latest wave of the pandemic will be on the wane. Many of the Canadian teams have had their games postponed due to restrictions imposed by local health authorities. That’s cutting into the league’s bottom line. Attendance is responsible for about half of the league’s revenues. A Leaf game generates about $2 million a game. And the league has to hit certain revenue marks — about $4.8 billion (U.S.) — for the salary cap to rise to $82.5 million. So every Canadian home game matters.

But the league is also running out of runway. It doesn’t want to extend the season. As things stand, the draft and free agency are a few weeks later than usual, and it wants to return to its pre-COVID schedule for the 2022-23 season.

More to the players’ point of view, playing in empty buildings again — as they did all of last season — has been disheartening.

“It’s just different,” Keefe said. “We’ve been through it, obviously, before. When we came into it, it was easy to say we did this last season, so it’ll be an easy adjustment. From my perspective, it’s felt a whole lot different, just going from full to empty. That’s been a dramatic change.”

“I think the players have felt it. I think the game has suffered as a result, frankly.”

Matthews also lamented the loss of fans, but expects they will show up en masse, as they always do, when the Leafs hit the road.

“It’s been tough going from what we did last year with no fans and then getting the fans back. You can just tell how much of a difference it made and just how much fun it was to feel the energy and the excitement in the arena and just the buzz of everybody. And so I guess it’s taking one step forward, two steps back. It’s too bad.

“But we’re going on the road and we travel pretty well. So hopefully maybe some of these away games feel like home games and we can kind of get that buzz back. Hopefully it’s not too long that we’re going without fans here because they honestly make a huge difference and it’s not the same without them.”


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