Leafs eager to move beyond past failures: 'We don't carry the burden of 54 years'

·6 min read

TORONTO — Kyle Dubas heard the outside noise clamouring for off-season change.

The Maple Leafs general manager even took phone calls from counterparts across the NHL testing the waters to see if Toronto was looking at drastically altering course following another crushing playoff setback.

Dubas, however, has had unwavering faith in this group, hitching his and the team's cart to a talented, expensive core of forwards led by Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares and William Nylander.

Heading into to a season with pressure unlike any he's ever faced, the Leafs GM — "for better or worse" as he put it back in July — isn't about to change tune.

"You always have to, in this job, consider anything that's going to make your team better," Dubas said Wednesday as training camps opened across the league. "There was nothing that came along from the end of our series to today that I felt was even to be considered in terms of making our team better.

"We would have been different, and maybe that would provide some cover and appease the masses a little bit, but we wouldn't be better. That's why my belief in that group is so large. I feel that when these big moments come again ... they are going to be at their best, and they are going to have success."

Success, as any Leaf fan will tell you, has been difficult to come by in Toronto for multiple generations.

A crushing first-round playoff defeat in May to the Montreal Canadiens despite leading the best-of-seven matchup 3-1 now tops a pile that includes five straight series losses since 2017, a failure to advance to the second round in the salary cap era, and a Stanley Cup drought dating back to 1967.

The Leafs are already parroting each other with party lines like "the past is the past," but how does a team move forward with the weight of so much baggage?

"We don't carry the burden of 54 years with us," said Dubas, Toronto's GM since May 2018. "A lot of the people in that (locker) room when I walk in there, weren't alive then, or most of them weren't, or all of them weren't. I don't think that resonates with them.

"What I've learned about this group in the last 3 1/2 months is that they care tremendously ... rather than proving all of that stuff wrong, they care about proving themselves and what they're about right."

Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe, who like his boss could be on the hot seat in 2021-22 if things don't got according to plan, knew what he signed up for 20 months ago.

"I recognize and accept the pressure and responsibility that comes with this position," said Keefe, who will begin his first full-length season in charge after replacing Mike Babcock in November 2019. "There hasn't been a day where I've thought about (job security), but there also hasn't been a day where I don't recognize the responsibility that I have towards our fans and our ownership and our management."

Toronto captain John Tavares said the core getting another vote of confidence from Dubas in the summer was crucial for a team that, despite the bitter end, did a lot of good things in a trying 2020-21 season shortened by the COVID-19 pandemic.

"We're putting everything into this every single day trying to find our way through these challenges and these hurdles and the things that have been tough on us," said Tavares, who's fully healed after suffering a scary injury in Game 1 against Montreal.

"We just want to keep banging on that door until we knock it down."

Toronto thought that moment was coming last spring. And when it didn't, the pill was tough to swallow.

"That's as bad a loss as I've experienced," said defenceman Morgan Rielly, who's entering the final year of his contract and can become an unrestricted free agent next summer. "It took some time to come to terms with it. As a leadership group, we tried to carve out some time to talk about what happened, why it happened, and what we can do to move forward.

"We feel comfortable with the plan that we have. We're going to press forward."

Fellow blue-liner Jake Muzzin — a Stanley Cup champion with the Los Angeles Kings and, at times, the Leafs' public conscience — said the pain felt in Toronto's locker room was a healthy sign.

"What was encouraging is it hurt," he said. "Guys were really sour about it.

"We should be. We failed."

And while Toronto's core remains intact and eager to turn the page, players not at camp dominated storylines across some of the NHL's other Canadian markets Wednesday.

The Vancouver Canucks continue contract talks their restricted free agents — centre Elias Pettersson and defenceman Quinn Hughes — while the Ottawa Senators are doing the same with winger Brady Tkachuk.

"They're complex negotiations," Canucks GM Jim Benning said in Vancouver. "We'll continue to have those conversations. I think we're getting close.

"Hopefully we can get it done sooner rather than later."

In Montreal, the Canadiens welcomed back forward Jonathan Drouin after he revealed this week anxiety forced him to leave the team back in April, but Edmonton Oilers GM Ken Holland announced goalie Alex Stalock is unlikely to play this season due to a possible heart condition.

Holland said Stalock contracted COVID-19 prior to the 56-game season, but was later cleared to play and spent time on the Oilers' taxi squad after they claimed him off waivers.

"Based upon where we're at today, I don't anticipate that he'll play hockey this year," Holland told reporters in Edmonton. "But if he does get further opinions it might change."

Back in Toronto, the Leafs are looking to stay in the moment, even as all that's come before continues to cast a long shadow.

"I don't think we can hide from it and run from it," Dubas said. "I just think that we have to do everything we can as an organization to be ready when those moments come again, that we're as prepared as possible."

And if that does happen this season with Dubas at the helm, it will be with a group led by the four high-priced stars — Matthews, Marner, Tavares and Nylander account for almost half the team's salary cap — he's continued to steadfastly support.

"I believe in them as players," he said. "But also as people and what they're about. I know that they take this stuff personally.

"They'll be ready to roll."

If they aren't, jobs could be on the line.

-With files from Gemma Karstens-Smith in Vancouver.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 22, 2021.

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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press

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