Leafs quietly confident about ability to win all-Canadian division

Chris Johnston and Shawn McKenzie breakdown the major storylines from the Toronto Maple Leafs' first day of training camp, including what it means for Joe Thornton appearing on the top line.

TORONTO — The first day of an NHL training camp is reserved for promotional photos and medicals. It also comes with an outsized amount of media attention, even in this age of safely-distanced Zoom availabilities, so when you work for a team like the Toronto Maple Leafs it’s important not to say anything you might later regret.

By that measure, it was a good afternoon behind the microphone for general manager Kyle Dubas.

“A great hypothetical,” Dubas said Sunday, when asked if this can be considered a successful season for his Leafs without some form of playoff success.

The third-year GM was in good spirits during a 20-minute session with reporters. He certainly wasn’t evasive or sneaky while fielding a couple variations of the question about how success should be measured in 2021. He simply refused to put any words around what we all kind of know intuitively about this iteration of his team.

The Leafs intend to conquer the North, first in the regular season and later in the divisional playoff rounds. They fancy themselves as legitimate players for the Stanley Cup and they know they haven’t won a playoff round since before Nicholas Robertson strapped on skates for the first time.

That’s why the less-is-more approach was smart for Dubas.

We’re all going to say it regardless, so why add any more kindling to the pile just as the match is being struck?

The closest Dubas came to disclosing specific expectations was pointing out that the team hadn’t finished any better than a tie for sixth overall in the NHL standings in recent years. He spoke of how former divisional foes in Tampa and Boston were consistently great regular-season teams before going on long playoff marches.

He didn’t explicitly connect every dot but it sure sounded like he was setting the bar: Dominate the regular season, secure home-ice advantage and the long-anticipated next step will follow.

“A lot of people will point to our playoff failures as a source of discontent and worry going into the year, but as I explained to the players [on Saturday] — and [coach] Sheldon [Keefe] and I have talked about really from the end of the season — the major thing that we feel has affected us as we’ve gone through the season has been we’ve not set ourselves up as best as possible for the playoffs,” said Dubas. “In going back to ‘16-’17 all the way through last year, we’ve had stretches which have hindered our ability to position ourselves as strongly as possible going into the playoffs. What we’re focused on right now in Day 1 of camp is building the foundation that’s going to serve us in the regular season and then focusing on each and every day in the regular season as a way to set ourselves up as best as possible for the playoffs.”

Signs of growth, he suggested, can be measured by how quickly they shake off a bout of poor play. Merely being good won’t be viewed as good enough.

The Leafs are favoured to win the North Division by both bookies and advanced statistical models alike, and this once-in-a-lifetime COVID-19 realignment guarantees the last Canadian team standing a spot in the conference finals.

In that sense, this seems like a golden opportunity after sharing a division with the Lightning and Bruins — teams that have won the first and third highest number of total games, respectively, across the last four regular seasons.

But this is sports and the models don’t always hold true.

Not every free-agent signing fits as expected, which is just as applicable for T.J. Brodie and Joe Thornton in Toronto as it is for Jacob Markstrom and Christopher Tanev in Calgary and Tyler Toffoli and Corey Perry in Montreal.

Plus, the gap between the Leafs and the other Canadian teams wasn’t evident at all when the season was paused last March. Edmonton actually enjoyed a slightly better winning percentage at that moment — .585-.579 — while Vancouver (.565), Calgary (.564) and Winnipeg (.563) followed closely behind.

Then Montreal knocked off Pittsburgh inside the summer return-to-play bubble and had a busy off-season. Even Ottawa, also-rans the last two years, have reason for hope with a burgeoning group of prospects and some veterans brought in to calm the waters around them.

“As difficult I think as the circumstances and the world we’re living in right now [are] — playing without fans and a lot of tough times that a lot of people are going through — I think this is such a unique opportunity for something that can be really special,” said Leafs captain John Tavares.

“I think the Canadian Division is probably the most exciting just because of all the fans and the pride that comes with playing in each team’s individual city,” added Auston Matthews. “It should make for some good hockey.”

Someone has to break through.

Vancouver reached Game 7 of the second round in August, Calgary added Markstrom to a group that’s won more games than any Canadian outfit the last two seasons, Edmonton has two Hart Trophy winners aged 25-and-under on its roster, Winnipeg played in the Western Conference Final in 2018 … but it is Toronto being labelled the alpha dog.

With the strongest blue-line they’ve built in the Matthews/Marner Era, and depth to spare at every position, they’re feeling quietly confident heading into a 56-game sprint of a season. They just didn’t want to put any quotes on the bulletin board before the first official practice had even been held.

“I think you’ve got seven teams that are probably all looking at it the same way,” said Dubas.

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