TORONTO – The first day of training camp isn’t supposed to feel this way.
The conversation around a hockey team with a 0-0-0 record should be about how much muscle the 20-year-old prospect sniper packed on. Or how its superstars are fit and fresh and pumped to take a run at the title. Or how the awesome the new acquisitions look. Think of all the replica sweaters they'll sell!
Yet the main talking points as the Toronto Maple Leafs officially reopened their doors to cameras and microphones for the first time since their most bitter, dramatic and unique playoff collapse ushered in little of the usual September optimism.
One would be hard-pressed to highlight, say, the Nick Ritchie tire-pumping from all the discussion about digesting defeat, fixing a busted power play, handling trade rumours, and walking important players to free agency.
Even though they haven’t lost a single game this season, both general manager Kyle Dubas and head coach Sheldon Keefe were asked point-blank if they worried about their own jobs twisting in the wind.
“It is a question I can’t really answer. It is something that I really don’t worry about. The only thing I worry about every day is being the best I can in managing this team for our staff and our players. If we all work together throughout this year and are at our best throughout the year, none of that will be a concern,” Dubas responded.
He’s used to this tone of questioning by now.
"I know it's cliché, but [external pressure] is nothing compared to the pressure I put on myself. It's a great privilege to play in this market. For me personally, it's just doing the best job I can for the people I work for,” Dubas explained, calmly.
“I believe in the group in the room deeply. It is easy to say you believe in something when it is at the beginning, and it is relatively easy and everyone is very optimistic, but true belief is tested when things get a little bit hard — when you struggle, fall, and need to pick yourself up and continue to move on. That is how I feel about the group in the room.”
Here are six more takeaways from Wednesday, as we heard from the GM, the coach, and several members of the Maple Leafs' nucleus.
Keefe welcomes pressure in final year of contract, rejigs responsibilities
Head coach Sheldon Keefe has run the Leafs bench in two shortened campaigns and two playoff series, and yet he enters his first full 82-game NHL schedule without the security of a contract beyond 2021-22.
“I don't think there's anything [new] there in terms of the demands or the pressure,” Keefe said. “I knew exactly what I was getting into, and I accept the responsibility that comes with that.”
Keefe, 41, says his own job security is not on his mind.
“There hasn’t been a day when I’ve thought about it,” Keefe said. “There also hasn’t been a day when I don’t recognize the responsibility that I have toward our fans, our ownership and our team.”
The coach has no desire to hit fast-forward and immediately jump back into the playoffs to right last spring’s wrongs. He’s excited about the process of building with players through the season and expects healthy competition for lineup spots.
With Dave Hakstol moving on to coach the Seattle Kraken, Keefe has reorganized his bench.
New recruit Spencer Carbery will assume the lead running a star-studded power play that fell to 16th overall in 2021, and Dean Chynoweth will handle the penalty kill.
Manny Malhotra, who oversaw the PP in 2021, will remain on the bench in a support role, while assistant Paul MacLean (recovering from a second hip surgery) will slide into an advisory position.
Coming off two troublesome playoff exits and with a relatively young support staff on his bench, Keefe will be under more scrutiny this season than any other in his coaching career.
“When we've had those moments of disappointment is when I found that he does his very best work,” Dubas endorsed.
Mikheyev will be ‘a big part of the team’
Dubas neither confirmed nor denied Elliotte Friedman’s report that winger Ilya Mikheyev requested a trade prior to entering his contract year.
"Ilya is going to be on the team and is going to be a big part of the team," Dubas said.
The GM suggested questions on the topic could be answered by Mikheyev’s agent, Dan Milstein. Milstein has yet to comment publicly on the matter.
Did Keefe sense Mikheyev was dissatisfied with his role on the club last season?
“Mickey’s certainly one of those guys that wants a larger role,” Keefe said. “That's a great thing as a coach — they're hungry for more, they're looking for more.
“I believe in Mickey greatly.”
Keefe believes if Mikheyev — who scored only seven goals in 54 games but killed penalties — is able to seize more minutes, it’ll only benefit the group.
Cloud of quiet on contract extension talks
Two key impending unrestricted free agents, No. 1 defenceman Morgan Rielly and No. 1A/B goaltender Jack Campbell, enter training camp without job security beyond 2021-22.
And there is no sense that an extension for either core member is imminent.
“I think you all know how I feel about being a Leaf. But there is a business aspect to it,” Rielly said Wednesday, fielding several questions on a topic he’d rather avoid playing out publicly this year.
“I totally understand it’s a question that's worth asking,” Rielly said. “I’m just going to go about my business, prepare for the season. I feel great; I'm ready for the season. I understand the question. I think about it, too. But I'm just going to go about my business.”
Dubas and Rielly’s agent, J.P. Barry, will talk privately. Rielly’s approach is to leave the matter in his Barry’s hands.
Said Dubas: “There are bigger situations with players in the league that currently don’t have contracts going into today. That's a personal matter for Morgan and a private one for us. You want to see where things go through the year with the cap."
Campbell, a bargain at $1.65 million, said he has yet to dive into extension negotiations. Like Rielly, he’ll focus his energy on winning games and let the business side of the game follow.
“All I can do to be the best I can be every day,” Campbell said. “When my agent calls me, then I pick it up, but I haven’t talked to him much.”
Nylander not yet fully vaccinated — but he will be
Of the eight core Maple Leafs who addressed reporters Wednesday, William Nylander was the only one to keep his mask on at the podium.
Prior to fielding questions, the forward announced that he is not yet fully vaccinated, “due to a couple medical things I needed to care of,” but that he will be for Opening Night.
Nylander said it was “a pretty easy” decision to get vaccinated so he can help the team achieve its goals. His status won’t affect his participation in camp, and he’ll be on the ice Thursday.
Dubas has assured publicly that his roster will be 100 per cent vaccinated.
Mrazek channeling some of that McElhinney magic
Instead, the Maple Leafs new goaltender weighed some alternatives after inking his three-year, $11.4-million contract this summer.
Mrazek’s father, Karel, petitioned his son take 58 — Karel’s own birth year and favourite number in his own playing days.
Petr also considered 14, to honour the late Czech star Miroslav Frycer, Mrazek’s first agent and a onetime Leaf. But that number hangs from the Scotiabank Arena rafters, topped with a KEON nameplate. (Frycer’s image is honoured in a vintage image painted on Mrazek’s new Leafs mask.)
Ultimately it was a conversation with friend and former No. 35 Leaf goalie Curtis McElhinney that pushed Mrazek to settle on 35.
Injured Matthews sets sights on Opening Night
As we reported last week, Auston Matthews (wrist) expects to play Opening Night. The Rocket Richard winner is back skating but will start training camp on the injured reserve list (alongside prospect Alex Steeves), limiting the rushes he’ll get alongside his new left wing hopefuls.
“We caught it in the first 10 days of August, he had the surgery a few days later, and the expectation is that he will be ready for opening day,” Dubas said.
The next step is for Matthews to get his splint off and start handling pucks, hopefully as soon as next week.