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Tavares healthy again, still upset with playoff loss by Maple Leafs

Center also discusses Marner free agency, impact Barrie can have

by Mike Zeisberger @Zeisberger / NHL.com Staff Writer

VAUGHAN, Ontario -- John Tavares is feeling healthy again, at least physically.

But the Toronto Maple Leafs center admits his pride remains bruised after his team was eliminated in seven games by the Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference First Round in April.

"I'm still bitter," Tavares said Friday at the Marner All-Star Invitational, a fundraising event hosted by teammate Mitchell Marner benefitting his Marner Assist Fund. "We were up 3-2 in that series. We thought we were in the driver's seat and we just didn't find a way to put the nail in the coffin … to really finish them off. It's something we have to learn from.

"At least I'm feeling better and back on the ice."

After the playoff elimination, Tavares agreed to represent Canada at the 2019 IIHF World Championship in Slovakia but sustained an oblique injury during the first practice and returned home. He stayed off skates for more than a month to heal but recently returned to the ice.

"I actually just had a really good week where I skated a lot with a lot of guys," he said. "Picked up the intensity and competitiveness. 

"I feel really good. It's full speed ahead now."

Video: How the Maple Leafs can re-sign Mitch Marner

Tavares, who signed a seven-year, $77 million contract with Toronto on July 1, 2018, set NHL career highs with 47 goals and 88 points in 82 regular-season games last season. He had five points (two goals, three assists) in the postseason.

In a wide-ranging interview with NHL.com, the 28-year-old discussed the future of the Maple Leafs, the fate of Marner, who is a restricted free agent, and the impact recently acquired defenseman Tyson Barrie could have on Toronto.

 

It's been just over a year since you signed with the Maple Leafs. Is being a member of your hometown team everything that you expected?

"Being a Maple Leaf is incredible. I think first and foremost, when you have the type of players and talent we have on this team, to be on the ice with them every day, pushing each other, trying to get better, trying to win the Stanley Cup, nothing beats that. But certainly, the support and the fan base and what it means to be a Maple Leaf, I didn't really fully understand it until what I experienced this year. Just the support, the history, the tradition, what it means to the city, even going to western Canada and along the border, it's incredible how many Leaf fans go to those games. It's been incredible so far, and I believe we're just scratching the surface. Look, you can never be satisfied and have to keep working until you achieve the goal of winning a Stanley Cup. But it's been a heck of a ride and it's only been one year."

 

You saw how crazy the city went when the Toronto Raptors won the NBA title. Have you dared to dream how crazy the reaction would be if the Maple Leafs won the Stanley Cup?

"I think that's part of why it would be so special to experience that because we obviously know what the Maple Leafs mean to the city of Toronto. The history of the team, how long it's been (52 years), it would obviously be something pretty remarkable. It's hard to even grasp what that atmosphere would even be like. It was truly amazing to watch the Raptors and see what they did and see how the city, and all of Canada, got behind them and what they were able to accomplish. Definitely pretty motivating and extremely cool to see."

Video: Super Slow Mo: Aho, Tavares, Stamkos and Staal

 

A year ago, Mitchell Marner was part of a video trying to recruit you to the Maple Leafs. Now he's a restricted free agent. You said you're confident the two sides will come to an agreement. Have you given him any advice? 

"I think you definitely want to respect his space and what he's going through right now. I remember going through my second contract (with the New York Islanders) and it took some time as well. So, it's not always something that takes just a couple of days or a week. I just think the most important thing is that both parties want the same thing -- for Mitch to be back here in Toronto. Sometimes these things take some time to work out. Mitch knows he can come to me if he needs anything. Look, there are a lot of RFAs still unsigned. Obviously, Mitch being in Toronto magnifies that with the spotlight and all of that. Me personally, I try not to worry about it too much, but we obviously know what an important player and person he is to this hockey team. On the ice, I want to win, and Mitch helps us do that, whether he's playing (on a line) with me or not. Obviously playing with him pretty much the whole season I really enjoyed it. His skill set speaks for itself, his style of play, his game. I felt we both helped each other and [Zach Hyman] was a big part of it as well. It would just be a ton of fun to build off that and try and get our games to a higher level and be even better."

 

The most significant offseason move by the Maple Leafs was acquiring defenseman Tyson Barrie from the Colorado Avalanche. What does he bring to the team?

"I know Tyson a little bit, not just as a player but as a person. He has such a dynamic element to his game. He's a great skater, he moves the puck, he likes to jump up in the play. It's easy to say that but you have to have the instincts to know when to do it and understanding the game. He really brings that. And knowing him as a person, he's going to fit in really well in our locker room. He's a real fun guy to be around. Brings life to whatever environment he's in. He's just that type of guy. Guys just seem to swarm around him. He should be a great asset for us. A great addition to our back end."

 

Having said that, Toronto had to give up center Nazem Kadri as part of the Barrie deal. How significant will his departure be?

"He's been here for a long time. And when you become, as I got to know (with the Islanders), part of the fabric of a place and of an organization for a long time, it's never easy. He's been through a lot here, a lot of ups and downs and made a tremendous impact over his time as a Maple Leaf. I think we'll always miss his feistiness, his energy, just the type of guy he is. He gets along with everybody. He's great in the locker room. And obviously he's got a very talented skill set. He's had some great seasons here. You can see what he brings to the ice on a year to year basis. Certainly, to get quality players like Barrie and (forward) Alexander Kerfoot you have to give up quality. Naz is a great player and we wish him the best."

Video: Avalanche, Maple Leafs benefit from Barrie-Kadri swap

 

Finally, you played on a summer league team called the Ontario Blues with Alex Pietrangelo and Michael Del Zotto when you were 12, 13. What was it like watching them hoist the Stanley Cup with the St. Louis Blues?

"It gives you goosebumps. Two great guys. You want to be in that position. That's the motivation. That's what we're looking for here."

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