This is the season the Toronto Maple Leafs win the Stanley Cup.
The National Hockey League landscape shifted on Canada Day when free agent John Tavares tore off his comforter and awoke to a childhood dream.
“The mood changes. The approach changes,” Morgan Rielly said Monday at the club’s rained-out charity golf tournament.
“You would like to think that we’re going in the right direction, but we’ll see.
“Where we are now compared to where we were a few years ago is a move in the right direction, but we got more room to go.”
Odds-makers shuffled their lines, pegging the Leafs early favourites to go the distance.
Several pundits have devoted summer radio hits to extolling the virtues of Toronto’s formidable depth up the middle.
And at last week’s NHL player media tour, hacks like Crosby, Kane, Evgeni Malkin, and Tyler Seguin all selected the Maple Leafs as the best bet to keg-stand from Lord Stanley’s Mug (their own teams notwithstanding).
“That’s what happens with good teams,” Rielly says, aware that peer respect is spiking. “Once you become an established team a little bit and players get more comfortable and a bit more experienced, you start to believe in yourself and you start to have bigger goals — and that’s certainly what happened here.”
Centre Nazem Kadri, a coach’s dream option at 3C, agrees.
“It’s nice to have that recognition, for sure. I think the guys have earned that to a certain extent,” Kadri says. “But to be a contender is a whole different story, and we know the work that’s ahead of us.”
With training camps opening league-wide this week, Toronto will engineer the hype train. So it’s only wise for the players themselves to do their part in tempering expectations.
How did all that positive pre-season speculation work out for the 2016-17 Tampa Bay Lightning or the 2017-18 Edmonton Oilers, a cautionary tale?
“You can’t believe your own hype,” Darnell Nurse recently said of the high hopes placed from the outside on last season’s Oilers. “We didn’t have that hunger we did the year before that made us so successful.”
Rielly says motivations and goals are strong, but there’s no internal “expectation” per se among a group that has yet to win a single playoff series.
That Kadri — arguably the most confident Leaf when standing before a microphone — is reining in the hoopla is telling. He’s taking cues from the fulcrum of all the giddy vibes, Tavares, a measured realist whom goalie Frederik Andersen describes as “a natural leader and a superstar in this league.”
As always, Tavares says, the objective is to win the Stanley Cup, but it’s a little ambitious to do that on Sept. 10.
“Obviously there’s a lot of excitement around the team,” Tavares says. “We’ll just worry about the journey and then kind of build from camp and getting ready for the start of the season. That’s all we can really control and worry about.”
Busy. Emotional. Stressful. Excited.
These are the adjectives Tavares uses to describe a summer that saw him move cities, throw his own wedding, sign a $77-million contract, try to improve as a hockey player, and infuriate more than a few Islanders fans.
“Whether people think I did or I didn’t, really what I tried to do is just handle myself the right way and go about it all the right way and really understand everything that was involved,” Tavares says.
“Just try to do the right thing for me and try to treat people the right way.”
Now there’s a nip in the Toronto air to mix with all that hope. Soon it will be weather-appropriate for kids to wear their 91 sweaters to school. Soon those opponents who say all those nice things about the Leafs’ speed and skill will be planning diligently to disrupt their offence. Coach Mike Babcock has always maintained that life gets harder when you’re on the radar.
Several conversations between Tavares and Babcock about the nuances of the Leafs game plan have been had. So, too, has the ice-breaking with club staff and Tavares’ eager new mates, plus a few on-ice sessions with his new Red Bull–fuelled wingman, Mitch Marner.
“He’s just Energizer Bunny out there,” Tavares says. “He’s just infectious being on the ice with, and then obviously his speed and his quickness, and there’s no question the way he thinks the game, the way he can make plays is special.”
Rielly says Tavares is a man who takes his job, his life, and his team seriously.
“I think we’ve all gotten that vibe,” Rielly says. “I spent some time [Wednesday] talking to him. He works hard, he’s always in the gym trying to get ready for the season just like the rest of us. When you talk to other guys that have played with him in the past, you ask about him and they all say great things. His reputation is certainly accurate at this point: good teammate, hardworking guy. We’re lucky to have him.”
Funny how Tavares can simultaneously act as both the cause and dampener of Toronto’s growing anticipation for a winner.
“Things have been great. I’ve been able to just be myself and live my normal daily life. I think that was a big thing for me: I don’t really want to change the way I live and kind of who I am and the way I go about things, so people [in Toronto] have been fantastic.
“I’ve had a lot of attention from people being happy about my coming home and excited about that. So that support’s been fantastic. And there’s been plenty of days I’ve gone out and haven’t been recognized or anything.”
Enjoy those days while they last, John.
Winter is coming.