TORONTO — The world has changed since the Toronto Maple Leafs last played a hockey game.
Kyle Dubas believes something has shifted inside his team’s dressing room as well.
It’s been 140 days that featured inactivity and uncertainty. A mix of fear, existential longing and boredom. And in the more recent gallop towards something approaching normalcy the Leafs general manager is seeing signs of sophistication.
“The talent level of the group, there’s never been a question,” Dubas said Monday. “It’s been the maturing and the mindset of the group that we know we have to take some strides in.”
They have arrived inside a bubble in their own city talking about taking those steps now. The Leafs are days away from jumping into a best-of-five Stanley Cup qualifier against Columbus, with only Tuesday’s exhibition game versus Montreal to sharpen their competitive spirit.
But Dubas is encouraged by the preparations made throughout the NHL’s COVID-19 pause. The Leafs dove head-first into voluntary Phase 2 workouts, getting over 20 players back skating together in small groups in early June while many rivals left practice facilities closed due to a lack of demand.
They had a leg-up because of the number of guys who live year-round in the area but they also saw Kasperi Kapanen, William Nylander and Jack Campbell return early from the United States to serve quarantines in advance. Morgan Rielly and Alexander Kerfoot had ice to skate on in British Columbia and still chose to fly back to Toronto and join their teammates well before the NHL’s return-to-play agreement was finalized.
Rasmus Sandin, who enters the playoffs as the Leafs seventh defenceman, spent 14 days in a hotel room after returning from Sweden earlier than many of his countrymen.
That team-wide buy-in came with extra reps together long before the mandatory two-week training camp started earlier this month. It also allowed for some bonding on the golf course and in cottage country, where Mitch Marner hosted a small gathering at one point.
“The effort that the players put into it, and their focus on their on- and off-ice, even during that [voluntary] phase and what they were doing away from the rink with how careful they were being and how they were holding each other accountable was a really strong sign for me about the growth that we’re going through as a group,” said Dubas.
This will be the fourth crack at the post-season for this Leafs core. They have played highly competitive series while losing to the Presidents’ Trophy winners (Washington, 2017) and the NHL’s fourth- and third-overall finisher from the regular season (Boston, 2018 and 2019).
Last year’s seven-game loss to the Bruins was particularly disappointing since Toronto held 1-0, 2-1 and 3-2 leads in the series — missing the chance to close things out at Scotiabank Arena in Game 6. The focus on maturity stems from the fact the Leafs actually finished with a slight edge in shot attempts and expected goals at even strength in that series, but still let it slip through their fingers in large part due to specialty teams.
They were lacking a killer instinct.
What remains to be seen is if the Leafs can emerge from this pause as a better version of themselves. They had a roller-coaster 2019-20 campaign and have placed a huge premium on reducing the number of chances and goals against. Only Florida allowed more goals among the 24 teams invited back for this summer restart.
“The root cause of that is just our mindset and becoming an elite team that really values how we’re performing defensively,” said Dubas. “Why I say it’s a mindset thing and not a skill thing on the defensive side, or a personnel thing, is that we’ve shown in various different games and different stretches that we can be a very good defensive team.”
This is where the commitment throughout the break comes in. It’s being viewed internally as a sign the core is ready to make the sacrifices needed to grind out tight games.
Head coach Sheldon Keefe certainly isn’t shy about discussing defensive faults — or, as he more optimistically labelled them, the team’s “biggest area of opportunity.” He spent months bingeing on the Leafs and then shared unflattering metrics with players during training camp.
The message resonated with Marner, who said “we’re hungry to prove ourselves out here.”
Dubas, who has moved downtown into the Royal York hotel alongside his players, doesn’t mind that kind of talk emanating from his group.
That’s a sign of understanding in his eyes.
“I think it’s great that the players talk about it. I think the players know the doubts that are on them, whether it’s from media or from other teams,” said Dubas. “And so they know what they have to prove and I think them acknowledging it and talking about it is a good sign because they’re not negative about it and they’re not upset that people say that about them.
“They know that we have to prove it and that’s what we’ll get to in the coming weeks and years.”