TORONTO — No matter how these next six months play out, you won’t hear the refrain “same old Maple Leafs.”
A new season dawns in Toronto with a rebuilt blue line, five fresh faces among the forward corps and new assistant coaches in charge of the penalty kill and power play. The Leafs even swapped out key members of their sports science and training staff this summer. It’s considerably more change than you’d expect from a 100-point team — some necessitated by the salary cap, but largely driven by stylistic and philosophic shifts directed by management.
Add it all up and the Leafs boast the NHL’s fourth-youngest roster while shouldering the weight of the sport’s longest Stanley Cup search. Oh, and they’ve arguably assembled the best team on paper that this organization has rolled out since George Armstrong and Co. last paraded through Nathan Phillips Square.
“I believe we can be the team right at the end lifting the trophy,” said John Tavares, expected to be named captain before Wednesday’s curtain-raiser against the Ottawa Senators.
They are trying to take the road less travelled. In the rear-view mirror is three consecutive first-round playoff exits, each incrementally more upsetting than the last. The returning players still smart at their squandered chance to close out the Boston Bruins in April — up 1-0 early in Game 6 and holding a 3-2 series lead.
The atonement won’t be available to them for another 186 days or so, but the journey back there starts now.
These Leafs are at once an experiment in chemistry and a test case for the sport. They are built to be an offensive juggernaut, with new blue-line additions Tyson Barrie and rookie Rasmus Sandin (not to mention Jake Muzzin, acquired midway through last season) particularly adept at moving the puck and successfully exiting the defensive zone.
In theory, it’s a sound approach — get it in the hands of the eight-figure game-breakers as much as possible.
No other NHL team can roll out two more dangerous top forward lines than Andreas Johnsson-Auston Matthews-William Nylander and Zach Hyman (once healthy)-Tavares-Mitch Marner. The Leafs plan to back it up with a speedy third unit built around newcomers Alexander Kerfoot and Ilya Mikheyev that will eventually include Kasperi Kapanen when Hyman returns from his knee injury next month.
It’s entirely reasonable to expect improvement with Barrie, Muzzin and Cody Ceci replacing the minutes formerly logged by Jake Gardiner, Nikita Zaitsev and Ron Hainsey. Sandin looked fantastic in pre-season and is a potential wild-card to take on a larger role as he gets more comfortable as an NHLer, while Travis Dermott is a couple weeks away from rejoining the beefed-up defensive group following shoulder surgery.
There is optimism, too, that the dynamic young forward core still has room to grow more dominant. Matthews (22), Marner (22) and Nylander (23) are all basically entering their athletic peaks.
“I watched them a lot [last season],” said veteran forward Jason Spezza, signed as a free agent to fill a depth/mentorship role. “They have a chance to be a special group. There’s some really dynamic players here. When you have a team with some of the best players in the league, and they have good structure and they’re well-coached with good goaltending … like all the pieces are there.
“I think you’re going to have a hungry group with the way they’ve lost a few years in a row in the first round. That was all very appealing to me to come and hope to kind of nudge things over the top and be a good influence.”
There is comfort to be found in one thing that hasn’t changed — steady Freddie Andersen continues to hold down the No. 1 goaltending job — and there are gains to be made with veteran coach Dave Hakstol now running the PK and Paul McFarland in charge of the PP.
Under McFarland, Florida had the NHL’s second-best success rate with the man-advantage last season. He has some serious weapons at his disposal in this new gig and already swapped the positions Matthews and Marner occupy on the top unit, leaving each on his opposite flank and in a better spot to one-time the puck.
That could pay huge dividends for someone with Matthews’s deceptive release if the exhibition schedule is any indication.
“I think so,” he said. “You look at all the top goal-scorers, they’re extremely productive in 5-on-5 and on power plays. I definitely want to be up at the top of that list.”
How this all comes together in the weeks and months ahead, no one can say with certainty.
There is considerable pressure to get results and a warming seat under head coach Mike Babcock, who holds some differing views on roster construction than general manager Kyle Dubas. That said, this skill team is also the league’s third-heaviest on average. They can be tough on the puck and more difficult to play against.
Remember that the Leafs have already started knocking at the door, amassing the sixth-most wins and points league-wide over the last two seasons. They are a good bet to improve on that in 2019-20, although they’ll ultimately be measured on what happens during the small sample size found in the playoffs.
“I think there’s a belief,” said Babcock. “There’s a belief that we think eventually it’s got to be [our] time, right?”
And if it’s not now?
Then, and only then, might you start hearing renewed grumbling about the “same old Maple Leafs.”