TORONTO — If you saw Jake Muzzin’s bushy brown beard and listened to many of the questions thrown at the Toronto Maple Leafs on Wednesday morning, you could easily have mistaken this team for one in the midst of a playoff race.
As last season’s 60-goal scorer Auston Matthews put it: “Everybody, it’s on their minds: Playoffs, playoffs.”
For anyone keeping score: There are still more than 200 days to go until that stage of the 2022-23 NHL season.
“I understand what it is, all that kind of talk and stuff, and rightfully so,” added Matthews, last season’s Hart Trophy winner, “but at the same time, we can’t move quickly into the future.”
No, we can’t, but nonetheless, postseason success was the talk of Toronto’s media day at the Ford Performance Center on Wednesday, the last day before training camp begins. It was the expected talk around a team that is much the same as 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 against two-time defending Stanley Cup champions Tampa Bay.
Mitch Marner was seven years old the last time this franchise won a playoff series, way back in 2004. He’s from the Toronto area and gets all the hype, but tried to focus on the days and weeks ahead. “I’m sure you’ll hear a lot, but especially from me,” Marner said, “you have to take it day by day.”
On Thursday, the Leafs are set to open training camp with two new goalies, Matt Murray and Ilya Samsonov, and a few roster spots up for grabs, but with a core they’ve kept to try and make a real run.
“As far as the season coming up, we’re extremely excited,” said general manager Kyle Dubas, sporting a blue team zip and sitting at a conference table in a room that had the feel and comfortable faux-leather seats of a VIP movie theater. Meanwhile, the Leafs players were on the ice doing photo and video shoots.
“It’s another chance for us to change history,” Dubas added. “I know nobody wants to hear what we have to say, they want to see what we do, see action. And I know a lot of people will want to say that’s going to have to happen in the playoffs, which obviously we agree with. We need to be better. We need to win at that moment, we are capable of doing it”.
Dubas is in the final season of a five-year deal as general manager of this team, and there were a lot of questions about that, too, which he says he’ll address at the end of the season. He noted that he “won’t let it be a distraction.” This team is based on responsibility, Dubas added, and “I think I have to be the most responsible.”
The most responsible guy put on the table what the goal is for this season, and it’s not just getting through the first round.
“Our goal is to win the Stanley Cup,” Dubas said. “So that’s what we’ve set out to do today, and nobody who works at this facility thinks about anything less than that, and what the repercussions will or won’t be.”
That goal is, of course, a priority for all members of this organization. “This is what makes it great, it’s the process and the journey here,” Capt. John Tavares said. “Hopefully we get a chance to break through.”
“We’ve shown over the last two years that we can run hot streaks and play really good hockey over a period of time and compete with the best teams in the league,” defender Morgan Rielly added. “We’ve done it during the regular season for long periods of time; we haven’t been able to do that in the playoffs for a long time. So it’s up to us to get to that point.”
Rielly says that over the summer she was able to stop thinking about last season’s disappointment on a daily basis, but it comes back from time to time. “I think once you get back on the track and surround yourself with your teammates, your friends and the guys, you face it again and you start talking about it,” he said. “It’s something that comes and goes throughout the season, and on a day like today they ask you a couple of questions and then you think about it again.”
For Muzzin, there is comfort in having this core group still together, after the disappointment of a season ago. “When there are familiar faces and you went through the fight together, that motivates you and your group to come out the other side as well,” he said. “We know we have a good team, we have a good opportunity, and personally for me, you don’t get that every time.”
Preparation for the upcoming season begins in earnest tomorrow, on day 1 of training camp. But this team knows that it will be judged by what happens in more than 200 days.
As Muzzin said: “It’s time to push through and get over the hump.”