TORONTO — The final team practice before Wednesday’s home opener has long wrapped up. Most of the Toronto Maple Leafs have shed their equipment and fulfilled their media responsibilities. Some have showered and left the building.
Fraser Minten — the club’s 19-year-old training camp shocker — is still sweating. He’s still wearing his skates in a mostly vacant dressing room.
Morgan Rielly, the longest-tenured Leaf, pokes his head into the room and checks in on the shortest-tenured one.
“You just come off the sheet?!” Rielly asks the kid, surprised.
The defenceman waits a beat, then flashes a wry smile.
“You really love the game, don’t you?”
The run-it-back Maple Leafs needed this, Minten and the other hockey-lovin’ fresh faces orbiting Rielly and the familiar Core Four forwards this October.
Certainly, we won’t know until May if all the off-season tinkering with the fringes of the Shanaplan will yield what has eluded this skilled nucleus for seven years running: a deep playoff run.
What we do know is that the feeling around the group is refreshingly lighter than it was at this time a year ago. A notch more relaxed but just as focused.
Now, we have a few ideas why that is the case.
First off: Winning is sport’s sure-fire salve.
Sure, it was only one playoff series, but the Leafs players proved something to themselves on that warm night in Tampa, where they threw that nagging win-a-round monkey off their backs.
“In the moment, it was a great feeling for our group,” Rielly says. “I mean, ultimately it still ends with losing. But to have the chance to prove to ourselves that we’re able to win a round and we’re able to persevere through adversity and win close games, come back late, all the rest of it, I think it’s a good sign.”
Another good sign is that all of Toronto’s collective scar tissue has had a bonding effect, steeling the core’s determination. They may only be at base camp, but they can at least see a path to what Auston Matthews refers to as the mountaintop.
Injuries, crummy road trips, and bad calls are treated as minor ripples. The rudder is steadier.
“There’s been some maturity in there for sure, as they’ve gained more and more experience, but also more and more disappointments — or failures,” head coach Sheldon Keefe says. “Yet you’ve obviously found a way to win a playoff round last year, and I think you grow a lot inside of that.”
The coach continues, flipping from the joy in Tampa to the second-round dismantling by Florida: “You grow a lot when the next round comes around, and before you know it, you’re out again. So I think our guys are very motivated, very focused.”
Captain John Tavares says “the page turned quickly” when GM Kyle Dubas was fired and replaced by the “tremendous” Brad Treliving. (Not that Tavares doesn’t think of Dubas as tremendous as well.)
Treliving stepped into the executive’s office free of the baggage that comes with piling playoff upsets. He hired Shane Doan and Guy Boucher and Mike Van Ryn and Curtis McElhinney. He transitioned Jake Muzzin into a scout.
Fresh perspectives. Different voices.
The new GM will step into Wednesday’s home opener against the Montreal Canadiens undefeated as a Maple Leaf, whereas the tension on his predecessor was visibly accruing, like the cap space that seldom did.
In the fall of 2022, Game 1 didn’t feel like Game 1. It felt like Game 83. Or 833.
Heavy as history.
It helps that Treliving is friendly by nature. Experienced. Confident. Tries hard without making it look like he’s trying so hard.
Companies assume the personality of their leaders.
If Treliving isn’t gripping the wheel like this might be his final lap, that poise will be contagious.
And let’s be honest: It also eases the air that Treliving received a raise and the security of term. In turn, he blessed his head coach and his best player with the same.
As for the healthy superstar, Matthews will take centre ice knowing he’ll soon be hockey’s highest-paid player, that he freed his club from a potential distraction, and that he has an open road to take another run at 60 and leave 40 in the dust.
“It’s a fresh slate,” Matthews says.
The slate couldn’t be fresher for Vancouver’s Minten, whose parents, Chantal and Trevor, are flying east to be in the Scotiabank Arena stands to watch their son surprise us all.
Or for Minten’s linemate, Matthew Knies, who showed well in playoffs, an amuse bouche for the lauded rookie’s first 82-game tour.
The kids arrive on cap-friendly entry-level deals — a gift for bookkeeper Brandon Pridham — but they also arrive with pro habits, a maturity to match the market, and an energetic naiveté that has had a positive effect on the veterans.
You can catch Minten taking faceoff tutoring from assistant coach Manny Malhotra long after the practice-over whistle has blown.
“Now there’s some younger blood coming back in,” Keefe notes.
The man sounds encouraged, and well he should be.
The other titans of the Atlantic Division, Boston and Tampa, have taken a step back — on paper at least — via retirements, injuries, and budget-forced trades. Meanwhile, Toronto’s best hockey players are healthy and in their prime. Divisional favourites this time.
Of course, you gotta play the games. And the 2023-24 Maple Leafs are a flawed contender.
Questions around their relatively inexperienced goaltenders, their imperfect mix of defencemen, and their unsigned 40-goal stud.
The Leafs have lost some key penalty-killers. Chemistry still needs to combust with the rented forwards. And their lack of true centre depth should be credited, in part, with Minten’s feel-good October surprise.
“Every year is different. It’s always a little bit different,” says Rielly, wearing Blue and White, staring at Stanley Cup attempt No. 11. “Even though the ultimate outcome of how last year ended is the same, it isn’t exactly the same. There was some growth.
“Everybody’s feeling good.”
Why wouldn’t they be? It’s Opening Night.
The Zamboni has just paved the way for possibility.
“I mean, it’s Montreal-Toronto, right?” Treliving says. “Leafs-Habs. Seriously. C’mon, we’re all pretty lucky.”
One-Timers: Jake Allen gets the start in net for the Canadiens…. Bobby McMann was placed on waivers Tuesday for reassignment to the Marlies and can be claimed by 2 p.m. ET Wednesday…. Keefe on third-string goalie Martin Jones clearing waivers: “It’s a good bounce for us for once.”
Maple Leafs projected opening night lineup
Bertuzzi – Matthews – Marner
Domi – Tavares – Nylander
Knies – Minten – Järnkrok
Gregor – Kämpf – Reaves
Rielly – Brodie
McCabe – Klingberg
Giordano – Liljegren
Klingberg, Matthews, Tavares, Marner, Nylander
Rielly, Liljegren, Domi, Järnkrok, Bertuzzi