Tavares hopes for ‘positive’ reception when Maple Leafs visit Isles

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CHICAGO — For the first time in his NHL career, John Tavares will enter training camp on a new team. The July 1 free agency decision was the biggest news to come out of the summer and while the Toronto Maple Leafs’ acquisition puts them in a position to make a Stanley Cup run, it left a void in the roster of his old team that will be very tough to fill.

Choosing a team wasn’t the only big decision Tavares made this summer as the 27-year-old forward also got married. But now as training camp approaches, he’s feeling settled with his new city and new team.

“It’s what you came here for and that’s to play the game and get the competitive juices flowing and get on the ice and get into the grind of the season, which is what you play for, which is what you prepare for,” Tavares told Pro Hockey Talk during the NHL Player Media Tour on Friday. “I’m just looking forward to that now.”

The Maple Leafs organization has been slowly building the team to be a perennial contender and has taken big strides since drafting Auston Matthews No. 1 overall in 2016. But regular season success has ended with two first-round exits, including last spring against the Boston Bruins after a 105-point year.

So is Tavares the final piece of a Cup puzzle?

“I think he’s definitely a piece you add, and you look at a team that’s got a lot of depth, that has all the tools to win,” said Matthews. “But unless you put all those tools together, play as a team, come playoff time that’s the most important part.”

Return to New York

Two dates on the Maple Leafs schedule are of interest to Tavares: Feb. 28 and April 1. Those two nights he’ll visit his old team, with the second meeting taking place at the renovated Nassau Coliseum, where he began his NHL career. Once his decision was official, there was a very heavy negative reaction from Islanders fans, many feeling betrayed. Social media saw plenty of burning jersey videos and that could lead to an interesting reception when he arrives back in New York.

Tavares isn’t sure what the reaction will be, but he’s hoping the fan base understands how much they meant to him during his nine seasons with the Islanders.

“I didn’t think everyone was going to love [the decision],” he said. “At the end of the day I did what I felt was best for myself and what I thought was right for me. As I tried to express in my [Players’ Tribune] letter back to a lot of Islander fans and the community and the organization there, was really how much they helped me grow up and be the player and person I am today. I wouldn’t be who I am now without that and how much I appreciated the support I got from the community and the Islander fan base and how well the organization treated me and how much fun I had there over the years.

“I wish I was able to do a better job and lead the team to more success. It’s something I’ll always have to look back on and wish I could have done more and did a better job leading the team. But we’ll see what happens. I hope it’s positive because I know the positive impact they all made on me.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.