TORONTO – If you’ve seen Jake Muzzin’s bushy brown beard, and heard the many questions being asked at the Toronto Maple Leafs Wednesday morning, you could easily mistake this team for one in the midst of a playoff.
As Auston Matthews, the top scorer who scored 60 goals last season, said: “Everyone, it’s on their mind: the playoffs, the playoffs.”
For anyone keeping count: That phase of the 2022-23 NHL season is still over 200 days away.
Matthews, last season’s Hart Trophy winner, added, “I get what it is, all that kind of talk and stuff, and he’s right about that, but at the same time, we can’t get too fast into the future.”
No, we can’t, but nevertheless, post-season success was a focus of conversation at the Toronto Media Day at the Ford Performance Center on Wednesday, the last day before the opening of training camp. The expected chatter was about a team quite similar to what it was last year, the team that set records in wins and points earned in the regular season, but again fell out of the playoffs in the first round, losing in seven games to two-time Stanley Cup holders of Tampa Bay.
Mitch Marner was seven years old the last time this franchise won a playoff series, in 2004. He’s from the Toronto area, and he got all the anticipation, but he tried to focus on the days and weeks ahead. “I’m sure you’ll hear a lot of it,” said Marner, “but from me especially, you should take it day in and day out.”
On Thursday, the Leafs are set to open a training camp with two new goalkeepers, in Matt Murray and Ilya Samsonov, and a few contenders on the roster to grab, but with their core staying around trying to make a real run.
“For the upcoming season, we’re very excited,” GM Kyle Dupas said, wearing blue for the team and sitting at a conference table in a feel room and comfortable leather seating in a VIP cinema. Meanwhile, the Leafs players were on the ice taking photos and video.
“It’s another opportunity for us to change the story,” Dubbas added. “I know nobody wants to hear what we have to say, they want to see what we do – to see action. And I know a lot of people are going to want to say this should come in playoffs, which we clearly agree on. We need to be better. We need to win then, we are able to do it.”
Dubas is in the final season of his five-year contract as general manager for that team, and there have been many questions about that as well, which he says he will address at the end of the season. “It won’t make it a distraction,” he noted. This team is built on accountability, Dubas added, and “I think I have to take responsibility.”
The most responsible man put on the table what the goal is for this season, not just getting past the first round.
“Our goal is to win the Stanley Cup,” Dubas said. “That’s what we have in mind today, and there is no thought among anyone working at this facility about anything less than that, and what the repercussions will be or not.”
This goal is of course before the minds of every member of this organization. “That’s what makes it great, it’s the process and the ride here,” said Captain John Tavares. “Hopefully we’ll have a chance to break through.”
Defender Morgan Riley added: “We’ve proven over the past two years that we can go on good runs, play really good hockey over a period of time and compete with the best teams in the league.” “We did it during the regular season for long periods of time; we couldn’t do it in the playoffs for long periods of time. So we have to get to that point.”
Riley says that over the summer he was able to stop thinking about last season’s disappointment on a daily basis, but it comes back every now and then. “I think once you’re back on the rink and back around your teammates and your friends and the guys, you face it again and you start talking about it,” he said. “It kind of comes and goes over the course of the season, and on a day like today you meet two questions, and then you think about it again.”
For Muzzin, there is comfort in this core group staying together, after the disappointment a season ago. “When there are familiar faces and you go through conflict together, it motivates you and your group to go out on the other end as well,” he said. “We know we have a good team, we have a good chance, and for me personally, you don’t get that all the time.”
Preparation for next season begins in earnest tomorrow, the first day of training camp. But this team knows it will be judged on what happens more than 200 days from now.
As Muzin said, “It’s time to push hard and get over the hump.”