TORONTO – Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Dave Nonis was not consumed this past summer with the stinging string of moments that led to his team's demise on that fateful night in Boston last May.
“I spent a lot more time thinking about the fact we proved to ourselves we can compete with that team,” Nonis said at the outset of training camp on Wednesday morning. “You're not forgetting what happened, but I haven't spent, literally five minutes thinking about it. It's dwelling on a negative that I think we shouldn't dwell on. We should dwell on the opposite: that we're not where we need to be, but we're a lot closer than we were 24 months ago.”
Gone is the cloud of a nine-year playoff absence and all the lingering disappointment and failures it brought with it. In this fall comes a Leafs team that will aim for another rung on the ladder, a belief that the success attained in lockout 2013 was just one incremental step toward a far greater goal.
“Our expectations have gone up,” Leafs coach Randy Carlyle bellowed shortly after Nonis. “Everything can't stay the same …We have to push for a higher level, if it's compete, if it's efficiency, if it's skill, desire, all those words that you want to use, we're going to have to push for more. This group has got to be prepared to give us more than they gave us last year and we've got to do it over an 82-game schedule.”
That will mean another step forward from the recently inked Nazem Kadri, the still unsigned Cody Franson, and James van Riemsdyk, who thrived with a veteran know-how in the postseason. More will be asked of Jake Gardiner, who struggled last year post-concussion and yet went on to wreak havoc when he entered the lineup against the Bruins. More will be demanded from James Reimer as he attempts to fight off Jonathan Bernier for the number one gig in goal. More might even be expected of Phil Kessel, the now 26-year-old rising to new heights opposite his former team following another regular season amongst the NHL's scoring leaders.
“We want to make sure that we build off the things that we created last year,” said Carlyle.
Preferring to focus on the long-awaited march into the postseason and near knockout of the Bruins – and not the untimely Game 7 unraveling – Nonis hopes that his team gleaned a belief that it could compete with the very best the league has to offer, that the assembled collection was capable of chasing down a team of Boston's caliber and very nearly toppling such a giant.
“It allowed them to believe in themselves,” Nonis stated of last year's group, which included 14 players appearing in their first postseason game. “Until you actually go out there and do it I don't think you can honestly say that we did believe, but they learned to [believe].”
“We feel we can compete with those teams,” he continued. “Boston's a pretty good hockey team. They went right to the very end [losing in the Stanley Cup final]. We can learn some lessons from them too. We want to become a team ultimately that can compete for a championship. We're not there yet. There are lessons to be learned. We hopefully learned some right there and there's a lot more along the way that we're going to have to pick up and figure out if we want to become one of those teams.”
While Nonis says that he was not consumed from the perils of Game 7, including the fall from a 4-1 third period lead, he does concede to thoughts of what might've been. Analyzing the series in its entirety, those thoughts continued to hover back to the series opener, a one-sided 4-1 beat-down, “the biggest lesson of all for our group”.
“We really felt and our players felt that they were prepared for it,” said Nonis of the loss, which saw many Leafs dazed in the headlights of postseason hockey. “But watch that tape and we weren't.”
A different team emerged in Game 2, one that swiped a 4-2 victory from the Bruins in the hostile confines of TD Garden, a match that was highlighted by Carlyle's creative approach to freeing Phil Kessel from Zdeno Chara, the former rising with an increasingly dominant performance against a former team. And from there the series tightened to the end points of Game 7.
“Players that maybe don't back-check as hard on a regular basis began to do it,” Nonis recalled of the shift in tone versus the Bruins. “Collectively we pushed them to do things that they hadn't normally done and it allowed us to have a little bit of success.”
For Carlyle, the lesson moving forward lies in accountability.
“There are growing pains that take place in team sports and we experienced one of them,” he said of the momentous defeat. “But we're responsible for that. We're not shying away from it. As a coaching staff, we have to take our fair share of responsibility for that also and we've done that. We're not putting our players out on an island and saying ‘You should've did this and you should've did that.'We're putting ourselves in the same boat and saying ‘We should've done some things, we had a chance to do some things that we should've initiated, we should've been the stimulus.' That's all part of it.
“That's the way this group is going to take the step forward is we accept responsibility for our actions, try to learn from them as much as possible and attack the next one straight on.”
“…when you're in a position where there is no turning back, you learn a lot about people,” Nonis added. “You learn a lot about what they're going to do and how they're going to compete and if they're people you want to keep around.”
Gone are Mikhail Grabovski, Clarke MacArthur, Matt Frattin, Ben Scrivens and Ryan O'Byrne, replaced by an infusion of postseason fortitude in the form of Dave Bolland and David Clarkson, the former capturing the Cup with the Blackhawks, ultimately topping those very same Bruins with the shocking winner in Game 7. Additionally added from the Kings is increased strength in goal with Bernier.
“I think when you bring players in that have gone through that and have won, that have gone through the adversity to win a championship, they can pass on a lot to the players around them,” said Nonis, stressing Bolland's run with Chicago this past spring and once previously in 2010.
The Leafs hope that the added know-how of Bolland and Clarkson, Bernier's predicted ascension, and continued growth from a stock of young talent will initiate another step forward in the building process.
But they know they'll need even more.
“In our opinion, we've taken some significant steps forward,” concluded Nonis. “We still believe as a group that we have a lot to learn and a lot to do. And it's only to get harder, it's not going to get easier for us.”