Maple Leafs GM Dubas knows words are cheap, people want 'to see action'

Shawn McKenzie reports on the sense of urgency that hangs over the Toronto Maple Leafs as they enter this upcoming season with aspirations of playoff success, something they haven't had since 2004.

TORONTO — If you saw Jake Muzzin’s bushy brown beard, and heard many of the questions lobbed at the Toronto Maple Leafs on Wednesday morning, you could’ve easily mistaken this team for one in the midst of a playoff run. 

As last season’s 60-goal scorer, Auston Matthews, put it: “Everybody, it’s on their mind: Playoffs, playoffs.” 

For anyone keeping count: That stage of the 2022-23 NHL season is still more than 200 days away. 

“I understand what it is, all that kind of talk and stuff, and rightly so,” Matthews, last season’s Hart Trophy winner, added, “but at the same time, we can’t fast-forward to the future.” 

No we can’t, but nevertheless, post-season success was a focus of conversation at Toronto’s media day at the Ford Performance Centre on Wednesday, the last day before training camp opens. It was the expected chatter around a team that’s much the same as it was last year, a team that set franchise records for wins and points earned in the regular season, but once again exited the playoffs in the first round, losing in seven games to the defending two-time Stanley Cup champions from Tampa Bay. 

Mitch Marner was seven years old the last time this franchise won a playoff series, back in 2004. He’s from the Toronto area, and he gets all the anticipation, but he tried to keep the focus on the days and weeks ahead. “I’m sure you’re gonna be hearing lots of it, but from me especially,” Marner said, “you gotta take it day by day.” 

On Thursday, the Leafs are set to open training camp with two new goalies, in Matt Murray and Ilya Samsonov, and a few roster spots up for grabs, but with a core they’ve kept around to try to make a real run.  

“With regards to the season ahead, we’re extremely excited,” GM Kyle Dubas said, sporting a blue team zip-up and seated at a conference table in a room that had the feel and cozy pleather seats of a VIP movie theatre. Meanwhile, Leafs players were on the ice doing photo and video shoots. 

“It’s another chance for us to change the story,” Dubas added. “I know that nobody wants to hear what we have to say, they want to see what we do – to see action. And I know that a lot of people will want to say that that is going to have to come in the playoffs, which obviously we agree. We need to be better. We need to win come that time, we’re capable of doing so.” 

Dubas is in the last season of a five-year contract as this team’s general manager, and there were many questions about that, too, which he says he’ll address at the end of the season. He noted he “won’t let it be a distraction.” This team is built on accountability, Dubas added, and “I believe I have to be held the most accountable.”

The most accountable guy laid on the table what the goal is for this season, and it’s not just to make it past the first round.  

“Our goal is to win the Stanley Cup,” Dubas said. “So that’s what we’ve set our mind on today, and there’s no thought amongst anyone that works in this facility about anything less than that, and what the repercussions are going to be or not be.”

That goal is of course front of mind for every member of this organization. “This is what makes it great, is the process and the journey here,” said captain John Tavares. “Hopefully we have a chance to break through.” 

“We’ve proven over the last couple of years that we can go on good runs and play really good hockey over a period of time and compete with the best teams in the league,” added defender Morgan Rielly. “We’ve done that during the regular season for long stretches of time; we haven’t been able to do that in the playoffs for long stretches of time. So it’s on us to get to that point.”

Rielly says over the summer he was able to stop thinking about the disappointment of last season on a daily basis, but that it comes back now and again. “I think once you get back into the rink and back around your teammates and your friends and the guys, you kind of face it again and start talking about it,” he said. “It kind of comes and goes over the course of the season, and on a day like today you’re met with a couple questions, and then you’re thinking about it again.”

For Muzzin, there’s comfort in having this core group together still, after that disappointment a season ago. “When there’s familiar faces and you went through the struggle together, it motivates you and your group to come out on the other end as well,” he said. “We know we have a good team, we have a good opportunity, and for me personally, you don’t get that all the time.”

The buildup to the season ahead all starts in earnest tomorrow, at Day 1 of training camp. But this team knows it’ll be judged on what happens more than 200 days from now.

As Muzzin put it: “It’s time to push hard and to get over the hump.”

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