Winning Maple Leafs know success in 2023 won’t be judged until April

The Maple Leafs' top players, from left to right: Morgan Rielly, Mitch Marner, John Tavares, Auston Matthews and William Nylander. (Darryl Dyck/CP)

TEMPE, ARIZ. — As the calendar readies for the flipping, the Toronto Maple Leafs find themselves in a most unusual place.

And, no, we’re not talking literally. (Although, Thursday’s ultra-cozy Auston Matthews homecoming at Arizona State’s 5,000-seat Mullett Arena, which requires visitors to duck outside to reach their dressing room, certainly is unique.)

Regardless how the remainder of this road trip shakes out, the Maple Leafs will awaken in 2023 in the same spot they were at the beginning of 2022 and 2021 and 2020 and… time is a flat circle.

Much like those previous editions of the Blue and White, these Leafs are flush with high-end talent and — after enduring a shaky October — have grown accustomed to stacking W’s.

Jenga is simple through the participant’s first few turns, and Toronto is making regular-season success look yawn-worthy.

An injury-ravaged defence corps? Bottom-six identity concerns? A couple of IR trips from a pair of let’s-gamble-on-’em goalies? A gaping hole at second-line left wing? A lame-duck general manager and a head coach who (foolishly) was given the shortest odds of getting fired?

No biggie.

The Maple Leafs are right where they should be at this time of year: third overall in points percentage (.714) and on track for another hot date with Destiny and her demons.


Seven seasons into the Matthews–Marner–Nylander era, what has become spectacular about the core is how unspectacular this all feels.

Mitch Marner’s 23-game point streak was a fun diversion, and his reunion on a line with captain John Tavares opens a fresh and nostalgic wrinkle.

William Nylander, who has never looked stronger, is hunting 40 (maybe 50?) goals. That would be new.

And super-sniper Matthews — backchecking and playmaking while he awaits his own heater — could finish with more assists than goals for once.

Fine sidebars all.

“No secret we’ve got multiple weapons offensively that teams got to be aware of,” says head coach Sheldon Keefe.

Yet fans and pundits and the principals involved can only be distracted by small victories of the day or personal bests or empty-calorie highlights for so long until the mind wanders to the trembling tower they are constructing. And whether the steeple can punch through to nirvana before the building blocks come toppling to the ground again.

Spend any time around this scared group, and you’ll quickly learn that hope is always given a reality check. Joy must be tempered by history.

A wonderful mid-season moment will unravel on the sheet, and a player or a coach stepping off the ice will quickly downplay the good thing, referring vaguely to “bigger goals in mind.”

It’s as if mentioning the Stanley Cup by name is akin to touching it. (Counterpoint: Can you blame the Leafs if they feel jinxed?)

Good is taken for granted and never good enough.

Excellence has become the expectation.

What is different in 2023, however, is a synchronized effort from management, the coaching staff, and the players to use this winter not for chasing franchise records but to prepare for what matters.

There is but one resolution within these walls for the new year.

And so, we’re witnessing a defensive duty that is off the charts, chopping goals against to 2.46 per game (second overall). This duller, safer strategy now permits Toronto to survive the power-play dips and mediocre goaltending performances that would’ve drowned previous incarnations of the club.

We’re seeing GM Kyle Dubas swap skittering skill (Denis Malgin) for straight-line dependability (Dryden Hunt) in a mid-season trade.

Keefe is a perfectionist who likens his operation to a sea vessel.

In his outward effort to swipe the Presidents’ Trophy from the mighty Bruins and allow the Leafs a hall pass from nemeses Boston and Tampa Bay in Round 1, Keefe says when he and his staff plug one hole, another springs a leak.

Get the even-strength offence clicking, and the 5-on-4 unit hits a rut. Dial in the breakouts, and faceoffs start to slip.

Whereas so many other Eastern Conference titans have rings and deep runs to rest on, Keefe’s work is constant, and he demands his players stay on task.

“We’re trying to refine it and be as close to perfect as we can,” Keefe says.

The Maple Leafs believe they can’t ease off the pedal because they’ve never come within sniffing distance of the finish line.

So, as we tiptoe into ’23, the focus in Leafland should only intensify.

Number 1 defenceman Morgan Rielly — without whom, strangely, the club didn’t miss a beat — will return to action.

The friendly crease contest being waged by Ilya Samsonov (perfect at home) and Matt Murray (two rings on the résumé) will heat up a notch.

And, potentially armed with Jake Muzzin’s LTIR cash, Dubas should be among the most eager and active executives ahead of the March 3 trade deadline. No doubt, he’ll be the most scrutinized.

For 2023 has everything to do with April and beyond.

Respect in the handshake line risks respect in the unemployment line.

Because no matter how the next 12 months shake out for the Maple Leafs, there’s not a snowball’s chance we’re standing here on the eve of 2024 and staring at the same old characters with the same old post-season reputation.

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