TORONTO – The first day of an NHL training camp is reserved for promotional photos and medical examinations. It also comes with an overwhelming amount of media attention, even in this age of safely zoomed-out zoom availability, so when you work for a team like the Toronto Maple Leafs, it’s important to say nothing you can regret later.
By that measure, it was a good afternoon behind the microphone for general manager Kyle Dubas.
“A great hypothesis,” said Dubas on Sunday, when asked if this could be considered a successful season for his Leafs without any success in the playoffs.
The third-year GM was in a good mood during a 20-minute session with reporters. He was certainly not evasive or sneaky in answering some variations of the question on how success should be measured in 2021. He simply refused to put any words on what we all kind of intuitively know about this iteration of his team.
The Leafs intend to conquer the North, first in the regular season and then in the divisional playoff rounds. They consider themselves legitimate players for the Stanley Cup and know that they haven’t won a playoff round since before Nicholas Robertson first used skates.
That’s why the less is more approach was smart for Dubas.
We will all say this independently, so why add more sticks to the pile as soon as the match is being streaked?
The closest Dubas came to revealing specific expectations was to point out that the team had not finished better than a tie for sixth overall in the NHL standings in recent years. He talked about how former division opponents in Tampa and Boston were consistently great teams in the regular season before entering long playoff marches.
He didn’t explicitly connect all the dots, but it sure looked like he was setting the standard: Master the regular season, secure the home advantage and the long-awaited next step.
“Many people will point out our playoff failures as a source of discontent and concern throughout the year, but as I explained to the players [on Saturday] – and [coach] Sheldon [Keefe] and I really talked about the end of the season – the main thing that we felt that affected us throughout the season was that we didn’t prepare as well as possible for the playoffs, ”said Dubas. “Coming back to ’16 -’17 all last year, we had some stretches that hindered our ability to position ourselves as strongly as possible before the playoffs. What we are focused on now on Day 1 of the camp is to build the base that will serve us in the regular season and then focus on each day of the regular season as a way to prepare ourselves in the best possible way for the playoffs. “
The signs of growth, he suggested, can be measured by how quickly they get rid of a bad game period. Just being good will not be seen as good enough.
The Leafs are favorites to win the Northern Division through both bookmakers and advanced statistical models, and this unique COVID-19 realignment guarantees the last Canadian team a place in the conference finals.
In this sense, this seems to be a golden opportunity after sharing a division with Lightning and Bruins – teams that have won the first and third highest total number of games, respectively, in the last four regular seasons.
But this is sport and the models are not always true.
Not every free agent hire fits as expected, which is just as applicable for TJ 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.
In addition, the difference between the Leafs and the other Canadian teams was not evident when the season was interrupted last March. Edmonton actually enjoyed a slightly better winning percentage at that time – 0.585 to 0.579 – while Vancouver (0.565), Calgary (0.564) and Winnipeg (0.563) followed closely behind.
Then Montreal defeated Pittsburgh in the return to summer game bubble and had a busy off-season. Even Ottawa, which has also lived in the past two years, has reason to hope with a growing group of prospects and some veterans brought in to calm the waters around it.
“I think it is as difficult as the circumstances and the world we live in now [are] – playing without fans and in many difficult times that many people are going through – I think this is 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 from playing in each team’s individual city,” added Auston Matthews. “It must be good hockey.”
Someone has to break up.
Vancouver reached game 7 of the second round in August, Calgary added Markstrom to a group that has won more games than any other Canadian team in the past two seasons, Edmonton has two Hart Trophy winners aged 25 or under on his list, Winnipeg played at the end of the Western Conference in 2018 … but it’s Toronto being labeled an alpha dog.
With the strongest blue line they built in the Matthews / Marner Era, and depth to spare in all positions, they are feeling very confident as they enter a 56 game race in one season. They simply did not want to put any quotes on the bulletin board even before the first official training session was held.
“I think you have seven teams that are probably looking at things the same way,” said Dubas.