Tavares ready to get back on the ice after early playoff injury
TSN Toronto Reporter Mark Masters reports on the Maple Leafs, who opened training camp for the 2021-22 season on Wednesday at the Ford Performance Centre.
Toronto's top players appreciated the vote of confidence they received from general manager Kyle Dubas in the wake of last season's first-round playoff failure.
"When you have the trust from management, it just builds more trust in our locker room and more belief that we do have the team that can accomplish what we want to accomplish," said winger Mitch Marner, who produced four assists in the seven-game setback against Montreal.
"It starts from the top," noted William Nylander, who led the Leafs in scoring in the series. "Him showing that he has belief in us is huge and allows us to focus on what we got to do and not be worried about other things happening."
Of course, there's plenty of room for growth after the Leafs blew a 3-1 series lead against the Canadiens. The leadership group had some candid conversations during the summer.
"Areas of improvement for this club, I think, a big one is our maturity in games, in season, holding onto leads, thriving in those situations," said defenceman Jake Muzzin, "and coming every day to the rink being prepared and being motivated to get better every day."
"We want to just keep banging on that door until we knock it down," said captain John Tavares.
Dubas reiterated on Wednesday that he has a "true belief" that the core has what it takes to get over the hump.
"In terms of their growth and the things that I see day to day from them, I am thrilled with them," Dubas said of Auston Matthews, Marner and Nylander. "They are still very young and they are not close to what most would consider to be their peak. We need to continue to help them, push them, challenge them, hold them accountable and go from there.
"The great thing I am happy about in this off-season is what I have seen from them in their care about the team. From the exit interviews through to today, their mindset is about the team more than anything else and what they can do to help the team on and off the ice."
Dubas, who is entering his fourth season as general manager, was asked if it feels like his job is on the line.
"It is a question I can't really answer," he said. "It is something that I really don't worry about ... If we all work together throughout this year and are at our best throughout the year, none of that will be a concern."
Head coach Sheldon Keefe was asked the same question.
"Those type of thoughts don't come into my mind," said Keefe, who pointed out this will be his first full 82-game season behind the bench. "These are things that are out of my control. Just like I ask the players to control what they can control in terms of their efforts, their habits, and their focus, I have to remain focused here. I have a job to do."
The Leafs fan base is understandably restless considering the franchise hasn't advanced in the playoffs since 2004 and hasn't hoisted the Stanley Cup since 1967.
"We don't carry the burden of 54 years — or whatever it is — with us," Dubas insisted. "A lot of people in that room 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 have learned about this group in the last three-and-a-half months is that they care tremendously about — rather than proving a lot of that stuff wrong — proving themselves and what they are about right."
On the first day of training camp last year, Keefe ended his media session by announcing, without prompting, how the lines would look to start. Things aren't as clear this year.
"I can't tell you with great certainty what the lines will look like when we open," Keefe said. "That's a good feeling for me, because I have a number of different options."
After losing top line left winger Zach Hyman to Edmonton in free agency, the Leafs signed forwards Nick Ritchie, Michael Bunting, Ondrej Kase and David Kampf. They also invited Josh Ho-Sang and Nikita Gusev to camp on pro tryouts. Meanwhile, Nick Robertson is pushing for more playing time after a strong performance at the recent development camp and rookie tournament.
"I see great depth," said Keefe. "I don't see a lot of holes there that I've seen at other camps."
Snakebitten speedster Ilya Mikheyev is also aiming for a bigger role.
"He, like a lot of others, will get opportunities through this pre-season to do more," Keefe confirmed. "I believe in Miky greatly. He's an extremely important player for us in the things that he does and if we can get him to add more to his game and take on more that's even better for us."
Dubas was asked to comment on a report that the soup-loving Russian asked for a trade during the off-season.
"Mikheyev is going to be on the team and a big part of the team," Dubas said. "We are looking forward to getting the most out of him. Any questions on that I would refer to [agent] Dan Milstein."
Keefe has a couple new assistant coaches this season with Dean Chynoweth and Spencer Carbery joining the staff.
Chynoweth, who spent the last three seasons in Carolina, will work with the defence and penalty kill. Dave Hakstol, who was hired to be the head coach in Seattle, handled those duties last season.
Carbery, the coach of the year in the American Hockey League last season with Hershey, will oversee the power play, which sputtered down the stretch last season.
"I met him when he worked with us at a development camp a number of years ago and when I was with the Marlies coaching against him in the American League," said Keefe. "The more you call around, you can't hear enough good things about the job he has done. He is a guy who has brought a lot to our staff."
Manny Malhotra, who worked with the power play last season, will remain on the bench and assist Keefe with the forwards.
"We have a really well-rounded staff. It has been great to work with them this summer with some of the protocols easing a little bit," Keefe said. "We have been able to work a little bit closer. This season, we have been together a whole lot more in the lead-up to camp. We are ready to go."
The longest-serving Leaf faced a barrage of questions about his future in Toronto.
"I totally understand it's a question worth asking," said Morgan Rielly, who is entering the final year of his contract. "I mean, I think about it too ... You all know how I feel about being a Leaf, but there is a business aspect to it. Being a Toronto Maple Leaf is pretty special to me and we'll see what the future holds."
Some players don't like negotiations taking place during the season, but Rielly doesn't have a preference.
"It's not really anything I'm going to try and control," the defenceman said. "I have a lot of confidence with where I'm at right now. I'm not going to put any rules on [agent] J.P. Barry and tell him what he can't do. I'll let that happen between J.P. and Kyle. I think that's the best approach for me."
"That is a personal matter for Morgan and a private one for us," said Dubas. "Every team that is trying to contend is going to be dealing with those kinds of situations with the flat cap, where you have players coming due and you want to see where things go throughout the year with the cap."
Rielly, an alternate captain, has played 572 games with the Leafs since being picked fifth overall by the team in 2012.
Tavares still has no memory of the scary collision with Corey Perry on May 20 that left him with a concussion and knee injury and forced him to miss the final six games of the playoff series against Montreal.
Tavares is eager to get back into game action possibly as early as Saturday when the Leafs open their pre-season schedule against the Canadiens at Scotiabank Arena.
"Nothing quite prepares you for what I'm going to face tomorrow [in practice] and then getting into a game possibly on the weekend, but I've been treating it like any off-season I've had in the past and everything's been great," Tavares said.
A quick start is important if Tavares hopes to make Canada's Olympic team. How badly does he want a ticket to Beijing?
"Really bad," Tavares said with a smile. "It's a special thing to be a part of."
Tavares won gold in Sochi in 2014, but missed the end of the tournament after sustaining a knee injury.
"I would love an opportunity to play in the semi-final and gold-medal game," he acknowledged. "It didn't end, individually, the way I would've hoped."
And Tavares is fully aware that it's likely now or never for his Olympic dream.
"I'd like to think I'd have another chance in four years, but as you get older, historically, chances get slimmer."
Matthews underwent surgery on his left wrist on Aug. 13 and hopes to have the splint taken off in the next few days.
"I've been skating and trying to keep up with my cardio," the centre said. "Hopefully, I'll be handling the puck next week some time."
Historically a fast starter, Matthews didn't seem too worried when asked if the surgery disrupted his ramp-up routine.
"It was a little setback, but I was skating quite a bit in July and early August," the 24-year-old said. "I thought I got some really good work in, worked on some stuff that I wanted to work on."
The wrist bothered Matthews most of last season and even though he'd like to be with his teammates to start camp, the Arizona native is happy that he won't have to worry about the injury moving forward.
"It's good for my mindset," he said. "I'm happy with the decision, honestly, of getting the surgery and I can put it in the past and move on."
Matthews is optimistic about playing in the regular season opener on Oct. 13.
Unlike his teammates, Nylander kept his mask on for his entire media availability.
"I'm not fully vaccinated yet," the Swede explained. "I had a couple medical things I had to take care of and I'll be fully vaccinated by the beginning of the season."
Wednesday marked the first in-person availability for media covering the Leafs since March 2020 when the pandemic began. Reporters sat spaced out while Dubas, Keefe and the players answered questions from a podium.
"I think being vaccinated is going to help everybody and helps the team achieve our end goal so it was a pretty easy choice," Nylander said.
The Leafs will skate in two groups on Thursday (10 am and 12:30 pm).