TORONTO — The Maple Leafs ended last season with an embarrassing defeat. But it hasn’t stopped the franchise from staying the course.
That message was clearly conveyed by head coach Sheldon Keefe on Wednesday as the Leafs prepared to open training camp. It was just a few months ago that Toronto – winners of the North Division title in a pandemic-shortened season – made an ego-bruising exit from the playoffs following a blown 3-1 first-round series lead to the Montreal Canadiens.
While no one has forgotten the sting of that failure, Keefe and company are determined to learn from it.
“Setting the standard was our focus last season; this season our focus is raising that standard and finding another level,” Keefe said. “Last season, we wanted to change our habits and our details, and we felt like we made great strides there, but it wasn't good enough. I believe in a lot of the great things that we did last season to put ourselves in position to compete in the playoffs. But we didn't get it done and we recognize that. Our focus is to be sure the things we do from day one of training camp help us be our best when it counts the most.”
Before Toronto begins its new journey with the first on-ice portions of camp on Thursday, the team addressed several looming storylines during Wednesday’s media day.
1. Morgan Rielly’s contract negotiation
The Leafs’ top-pairing defenceman is entering the final year of his six-year, $30 million contract and there hasn’t been much discussion so far on an extension.
“You deal with it as it comes,” said Rielly. “My approach this year is that I don’t really want to discuss it publicly. …You know how I feel about being a Leaf, but at the same time, it’s a business. But being a Toronto Maple Leaf is special to me.”
While some players prefer not to negotiate once the season begins, Rielly said he isn’t putting any parameters on the process.
“It’s not something I’m going to try and control,” he said. “I’m just going to go out there and play hockey. I have a lot of confidence with where I’m at right now. I’m not going to put any rules on [my agent]. And I’ll take care of what I can do hockey-wise. That’s the best approach for me.”
Meanwhile, Dubas is keeping an eye on the NHL’s salary cap. It’s currently a flat $81.5 million, and the Leafs are right up against it. Should that hold for next season, Toronto may struggle to match what Rielly could command on the open market.
Over last summer alone, Seth Jones signed an eight-year, $76 million contract with Chicago, Darnell Nurse signed an eight-year, $74 million extension with Edmonton and Zach Werenski inked a six-year, $57.5 million pact with Columbus.
2. Spencer Carbery is taking over the power play
The Leafs started last season as one of the NHL’s best teams on the power play. Through the final three months and into playoffs, Toronto was alarmingly bad with the extra man.
From March 11 to their final regular-season game, the Leafs’ power play ranked second-worst in the NHL (6.9 per cent). The power play gave up more goals shorthanded (six) than it scored (five). In the postseason, the Leafs’ power play was just 3-for-23 (13 per cent).
First-year assistant coach Manny Malhotra had been in charge of those units, but that’s no longer the case. Newly hired assistant Spencer Carbery will be taking over power play duties, while Malhotra moves to a supporting role without defined responsibilities. Dean Chynoweth will be coaching the penalty kill (after Dave Hakstol departed to become head coach of the Seattle Kraken). Paul MacLean remains part of the staff in an advisory role.
“Spencer is a guy I have tremendous respect for,” Keefe said. “You can’t hear enough good things about the job he did [as coach of the year with the AHL’s Hershey Bears last season]. It’s been great to work with him this summer.”
3. John Tavares’ quick recovery
It was just minutes into Game 1 against Montreal last May that John Tavares was hit by Ben Chiarot and then took a knee to the head from Corey Perry in an alarming sequence that knocked Toronto’s captain out cold.
Tavares says now he has no memory of the play, or its disturbing aftermath. The 31-year-old centre was clearly disoriented after coming to on the ice and was taken to the hospital for further testing. After being diagnosed with a concussion and minor knee injury, Tavares was released – and, he says, back to normal in a hurry.
“As things progressed coming out of the hospital, I didn’t have any symptoms, I didn’t have any pain,” Tavares said. “Other than being really exhausted, I got back to myself really quickly after I got some rest and some sleep, and the shock wore off. After three or four days, I was on the bike, getting my heart rate up.”
Tavares missed the rest of Toronto’s series against the Canadiens but had resumed skating and could have possibly returned had the Leafs advanced to the second round. When that didn’t happen, Tavares used to the extra downtime to continue healing and working on his game for the coming year.
4. Auston Matthews expects to play in Game 1
Matthews made it through almost all of last season nursing a nagging wrist injury, missing just four games while still pocketing 41 goals to earn the first Rocket Richard Trophy of his career.
The 24-year-old centre had hoped that, with a little rest, his wrist would return to full strength on its own. But as Matthews ramped up his off-season training, it became clear his wrist still wasn’t 100 per cent. So, in consultation with the Leafs’ doctors, he decided to go under the knife Aug. 13.
The recovery time was about six weeks, and as of now Matthews is on track to be in the lineup for the Leafs’ first game on Oct. 13.
“I’ve been skating. We’ll get the splint off [soon],” Matthews said. “I’ve just been keeping my cardio up before we progress into more hockey stuff.”
Matthews said the surgery did impact his summer routine, but he’s hopeful that would have a lingering effect on the season ahead.
“I [still] got some really good work in on stuff I wanted to work on,” he said. “Now I’m getting back on the ice and that’s [a great opportunity] before you get back in action, get back to practices and handling pucks.”
There is no timeline yet for when Matthews might begin participating in the Leafs’ training camp drills.
5. William Nylander isn’t fully vaccinated
The NHL has rolled out stringent protocols related to player and staff COVID-19 vaccination for this season, and William Nylander is in the process of complying.
“I’m not fully vaccinated yet,” Nylander said. “I had some medical issues [to deal with], but I’ll be fully vaccinated by the start of the season.”
Nylander said it was important he get a complete dose of the vaccine, and not just for professional reasons.
“I wanted to do the right thing and get vaccinated,” he said. “It’s going to help everyone and help the team.”