TORONTO — The last time the Toronto Maple Leafs had meaningful games to play, there were some in the dressing room struggling to find meaning.
“It was hell,” veteran forward Joffrey Lupul said Tuesday. “It wasn’t fun at all.”
Winning just nine times in the final three and a half months of the season has a crippling effect on a team. Not only were the playoffs out of reach before the end of January, but a listless feeling fell over the group.
Fast forward a few months — months that included a full organizational housecleaning and the installation of a new coaching staff — and there’s a whole new atmosphere in Toronto.
“You feel a lot better coming to the rink now and it gives you more energy at practice and in the gym,” said Lupul. “For us last year it just kind of seemed to drag on. That’s the good thing about pro sports: You get a fresh start.”
More than anything, that’s what Wednesday’s season-opener against Montreal represents.
Ten players made the opening night roster who weren’t here at the end of last year. The newest face walked through the door on Tuesday after 22-year-old defenceman Frank Corrado was claimed off waivers from Vancouver.
He grew up just north of the city in the suburb of Woodbridge and couldn’t be happier to join his childhood team.
“There are no words to describe it,” said Corrado. “It really is a dream come true.”
Under new coach Mike Babcock everything is up for grabs. The Leafs tinkered repeatedly with forward lines and defensive pairings throughout training camp, and that’s not likely to stop now.
Babcock’s expectations are pretty straightforward.
“We’re going to get so that we’re organized, we’re going to get so that we’re very hard-working and that we’re in it together night in and night out,” he said. “We’re going to be a hard group to play against and make it hard on teams. Now how long’s that going to take, I don’t know the answer to that question. I just know that we’re going to work on getting better each and every day.
“I think things are positive: I like our group and I like what we’re doing.”
Some of the veterans have already noticed a change for the better, particularly with the way the group prepares itself.
“I think you can see our practice habits have improved,” said captain Dion Phaneuf. “With that — when you do that day in, day out — you’re going to get better results.”
Unless the Leafs do something totally unexpected like challenge for a playoff spot, the results are likely to be a secondary storyline this season. Frankly, the expectations couldn’t be any lower for an organization tied for the longest active Stanley Cup drought.
This season is about taking a step forward, and showing growth, and putting the miserable 2014-15 campaign as far in the rear-view mirror as possible.
“I think we’re going to be better, yeah,” said Lupul. “There’s two ways to look at that: I don’t know if we could be much worse than we were at the end of last year, but we’ve put in a lot more work. I can see the way we practice is better, I can see our structure on the defensive side of things is better.”
His biggest area of concern is the offensive zone.
“We’re going to have to find a way to score a couple more goals,” said Lupul. “We struggled to score goals last year and we lost our most skilled player (Phil Kessel), so we’re going to have to have a lot of guys step up and score goals.
“We’re going to play better. We’re not going to lose games 6-1 and games like that. We’re going to be in games, we’re going to be a hard-working team and hopefully a fun team to watch.”
That would qualify as an improvement. Remember where they’re coming from.