TORONTO — The changing fortunes of the Toronto Maple Leafs have been evident by the topics of discussion during the pre-season.
Debate has centred around the identity of the fourth-line centre and sixth defenceman. The other pieces seem to be in place.
That was shown by a 26-point jump last season, when the Leafs improved to 40-27-15 after going 29-42-11 the previous year. Toronto finished eighth in the East and gave the first-place Washington Capitals a scare in the first round, pushing them to six games — five of which ended in overtime.
The Leafs bolstered their lineup in the off-season by acquiring veteran forwards Patrick Marleau and Dominic Moore and defenceman Ron Hainsey, who have a combined 3,548 regular season and playoff games between them.
Coach Mike Babcock likes what he sees, but says more hard work is needed.
"My message thus far after I’ve seen us in camp is that talent level is way up. But that means the work level’s got to be way up," he said. "So if you don’t put your work up before your skill, if skill comes first, you don’t win.
"Now you get some points, entertain some fans and you get some hope up and you never ever win. But if you put your work first and you have good structure, then you still get points, you get all that stuff, but you actually get a chance to win. So we’ve got to learn how to play right and play hard and do it every single day."
The message that the Leafs still have to prove themselves has clearly been absorbed by the players.
"Some of the foundation was built last year, in terms of what it takes (to win)," said defenceman Connor Carrick. "But there’s been story after story about teams that had a year of success and then not, a couple of years of success and then not."
"We’re definitely a more confident group but we still have zero wins (this season)," he added. "It’s all about building ourselves into an animal that nobody wants to play against come playoff time."
The Toronto skill level is plain to see.
Rookie of the year Auston Matthews (40 goals, 29 assists) more than delivered on his pre-draft promise. And a young supporting cast that includes Mitch Marner (19 goals, 42 assists) and William Nylander (22 goals, 39 assists) is both exciting and productive.
"It’s impressive," Carrick said of the team’s arsenal. "It’s fun to be around and it’s contagious."
There is veteran talent up front in Tyler Bozak, James van Riemsdyk, Nazem Kadri and Leo Komarov.
Morgan Rielly, Jake Gardiner and Nikita Zaitsev are smooth-skating defencemen on the rise.
Moore seems to have the edge over Eric Fehr and young Finn Miro Aaltonen for fourth-line centre. The sixth defenceman opening involves Martin Marincin, Travis Dermott, Calle Rosen and Andreas Borgman with veteran Roman Polak a wild card coming back from a gruesome leg injury in the playoffs.
Told by a reporter on Day 1 of camp that he had more NHL-ready forwards than openings, Babcock grinned.
"Isn’t that great, eh," he said.
There will likely be movement between the Leafs and AHL Marlies as the roster settles.
"The right people always end on the team. Sometimes they don’t end up on the team right away," Babcock said.
Other questions remain.
Can the Leafs tighten the defence? While Toronto ranked fifth best in goals scored (250) last season, it was ninth worst in goals allowed (234).
And can Toronto go another season escaping injury?
For Kadri, last season’s strides will make for a tougher road this time round.
"Teams are going to respect us more, (but) they’re going to be more prepared to play against us," he said. "So it’s going to get a little more difficult but nothing we can’t handle."
Matthews continues to centre Zach Hyman and Nylander. The Marner-Bozak-van Riemsdyk line is also unchanged this season. Marleau has slotted in on the wing alongside Kadri and Komarov.
Hard-nosed Matt Martin and Connor Brown appear to have fourth-line places locked down.
On defence, Rielly has been paired with Hainsey while Gardiner skates with Zaitsev. Carrick is the fifth blue-liner.
Curtis McElhinney, Frederik Andersen’s backup, answered critics with a pair of solid pre-season performances.
This will be the last season for the Leafs’ home as the Air Canada Centre. Come July, it will be renamed Scotiabank Arena.