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Tavares, Marner Among Maple Leafs Back at Practice Following Pause

Toronto Maple Leafs captain John Tavares returned from COVID-19 protocol and Mitch Marner was a full participant during the team's first practice after an outbreak forced a pause in activities.

A return to practice following the holidays has typically meant a return to normal for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

But Sunday's skate, the team's first since Dec. 16 in Vancouver, was anything but.

The spread of the omicron variant of the COVID-19 virus has forced a league-wide pause that commenced earlier than the holiday one that was scheduled. Some teams that had outbreaks, like the Maple Leafs, were forced to shut down activities days before then.

Over the last few weeks, the Maple Leafs had a total of 14 players and seven staff members test positive for COVID-19. Their AHL affiliate -- the Toronto Marlies -- had 24 players test positive five staff members test positive.

The Maple Leafs iced 11 forwards, five defensemen and two goaltenders at practice at Ford Performance Centre on Sunday. Head coach Sheldon Keefe and assistant coach Spencer Carbery remain in COVID protocol, so assistant coaches Manny Malhotra and Dean Chynoweth led the session.

As it stands right now, the Maple Leafs are scheduled to host the Pittsburgh Penguins on Wednesday. If that game goes ahead, they may be shorthanded at certain positions based the amount of healthy bodies available. 

UPDATE: The NHL announced late Sunday evening that the Leafs-Penguins game scheduled for Wednesday has been postponed. 

"I don't believe we'd have enough defensemen to play and we would be short one goaltender," Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas said on a ZOOM conference with reporters.

Players remaining on COVID-19 protocol are forwards Alex Kerfoot, Jason Spezza, Wayne Simmonds, David Kampf, Ilya Mikheyev, William Nylander, defensemen TJ Brodie, Travis Dermott, Morgan Rielly, Jake Muzzin and goaltenders Jack Campbell and Petr Mrazek.

The Leafs may get Kerfoot, Spezza and Simmonds back for Monday's practice if they pass their cardiac screening, according to Dubas. But they may be forced to play with just the five defensemen who took part in practice on Sunday.

Joseph Woll and Ian Scott were the two goaltenders at practice on Sunday, but Scott is still on injured reserve with a groin injury sustained during the pre-season.

The NHL added temporary changes to roster rules, which includes up to six players being added to a taxi squad. But the double whammy of an outbreaking hitting both the Maple Leafs and Marlies has left the club with a struggle to find available players that meet the conditions. 

"The way it shook down with the Marlies, the majority of players who became positive early save for (Filip) Kral and (Joey) Anderson League contracted players who aren't eligible at this point to play in NHL games," Dubas said.

The good news for the Leafs is John Tavares rejoined the club after he was part of the first group of players placed on COVID-19 protocol on Dec. 17.

The Maple Leafs captain said he had a difficult sleep a week ago Friday night before waking up to a strong headache, body aches and some fatigue on the following Saturday. As he began to feel better on Sunday, he also lost a bit of his tase and smell. 

"From Monday, I started to kind of just feel better every day in terms of my energy and just feeling like myself," Tavares said. 

Mitch Marner also took part in practice and rejoined the team's top line alongside Auston Matthews and Michael Bunting. But Marner's status for Wednesday's game is still up in the air.

"Obviously his rehab was affected by the shutdown and the pause in our activity," Dubas said. "I think after a few days of practice, we'll get a beat on that, but certain to see him out there in practice today is a step in the right direction."

Marner was injured on Dec. 3 when he was involved in a collision with Muzzin at practice. On Dec. 7, the team announced that Marner would miss three-to-four weeks. He was subsequently put on long-term injured reserve (LTIR). Under normal times, Marner would have to miss a minimum of ten games and 24 days, but Dubas says the team is in talks with the league about getting an exception for the games portion of that requirement given those games were on the schedule at the time he was put on LTIR.

"I think if it was going to have to be the games played, you'd have a players in the league -- because of postponements -- that would be healthy and not able to play," Dubas said. "I'm hopeful that that's the case with Mitch and I'd agree with that whether we had any player on LTIR or not."

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