Treliving sets calm tone as Leafs manage high expectations
The Maple Leafs practised at the Ford Performance Centre on Tuesday ahead of Wednesday’s season-opener against the Montreal Canadiens at Scotiabank Arena.
It's unanimous: TSN's analysts are picking the Leafs to finish first in the Atlantic Division during the regular season. What do the Leafs expect from themselves?
"You always have internal expectations," said general manager Brad Treliving. "I think we'll keep those internally."
With Boston's Patrice Bergeron retired and Tampa Bay's Andrei Vasilevskiy joining Florida's Aaron Ekblad and Brandon Montour on the injured list, the door appears to be open for Toronto.
"It's really important for us to not to get ahead of ourselves," cautioned Treliving. "We know the challenge ahead of us is great. It's a really good division, I think the strongest division in hockey."
When Treliving took over from Kyle Dubas in the summer, it felt like the first of what could be many big changes. But from Day 1, Treliving made it clear he didn't plan any seismic shifts. New players have been signed with an emphasis on edginess, but the core and coach is back. The transition has seemed smooth.
"It's felt very natural," confirmed coach Sheldon Keefe, who signed a two-year extension in the summer. "We have communicated a lot, which I have enjoyed. I think we are aligned in terms of our expectations for the individuals, the team collectively and how the team has come together."
"Very calm, friendly guy," winger Mitch Marner said of Treliving. "He's been letting us know he's there for us whatever we need. That's what you want."
Toronto's star players are, as always, under the microscope. The ultimate judgment will come in the playoffs, but they still have to get there.
"We got to live day by day here," Treliving stressed. "We start the journey tomorrow."
"It's a fresh slate, clean slate going into it," said centre Auston Matthews, who signed a four-year extension in the summer. "It's easy to get ahead ourselves, but we got 82 games to play and the first one starts tomorrow and you can only control so much."
The Leafs stumbled out of the gate in each of the last two seasons. Toronto started 2-4-1 in the 2021-22 season, including an embarrassing blowout loss in Pittsburgh. Last year, they went 4-4-2 in October, which was punctuated with a winless run through California.
"Expectations are high, there's no question about that," said defenceman Morgan Rielly, who remains the longest-serving Leaf. "But, to be honest with you, right now our mindset and main focus is to have a good start. We've had a good training camp and it's a little bit early to start looking at expectations or year-end goals and stuff like that. We're worried about our first game and we're going to be present. We're not going to get carried away looking too far into the future."
Unlike Dubas, who kept a low profile at the start of the regular season last year, Treliving did a series of interviews ahead of Wednesday's opener against the Montreal Canadiens. The new boss is setting the tone.
"In a market like this, there is a lot of noise," he said during an interview with First Up on TSN Radio in Toronto. "That is one of the things that makes it so special. We are excited about it. I am looking forward to getting started."
Matthews, as always, isn't tipping his hand when it comes to where he wants to grow as a player.
"There's a number of things that when you go into a season you kind of have in the back of your mind that you'd like to improve on, focus on, stuff like that, but I prefer to keep that stuff personal," he said.
Matthews saw his goal production dip from 60 to 40 last season. The hand/wrist issues that hindered him are now in the past.
"It's felt good this camp and just nice to get rolling and get back in a rhythm here," he said.
After a healthy summer, the 2021-22 Hart Trophy winner is on track for a big bounce-back campaign.
"Every year he's been here he's improved on stuff over the course of the summer," noted Rielly. "He's extremely focused. Each year he comes back and he looks a little better, a little faster ... With him, this year, it's obvious that he spent some time and he looks like he's ready to go."
Treliving signed Matthews to an extension in the summer, which eliminated a potential distraction. For Matthews, it's all about the business on the ice.
"He's as driven a guy as there is to be great," Treliving said. "I've had players come to me that are new to our team and the messaging has been the same, 'Wow, I didn't know how driven this guy was.'"
During his 60-goal run, Lightning coach Jon Cooper mused about 70 being within reach for Matthews one day. But Treliving knows Matthews will measure success a different way.
"He talks about team success," Treliving noted. "Everything for him is about taking responsibility for wins and losses, driving the group forward. How can we better? He's special, special and those players have an aura around them and he certainly does."
One of Treliving's big additions in the summer was gritty winger Tyler Bertuzzi, who has skated beside Matthews and Marner on the top line. Those three did not link up for an even-strength goal during three pre-season games together.
"It's still a little bit of a work in progress, but the attributes fit," Treliving said. "He goes to the net. He's a dog on a bone on the puck. He keeps plays alive. He hunts pucks. He finds pucks in and around the paint. One thing with Tyler that I think is underrated, he has a great short game, if we're using a golf analogy. He can make little plays, like under sticks, through feet, in around the blue paint and he's playing with two guys that are pretty good at finishing off the short game. It's early. They're building some chemistry, but you look at it on paper and you think it could work and now we get to see it in real life and see where it goes."
After spending training camp on a pro tryout, winger Noah Gregor signed a one-year, $775,000 contract on Tuesday.
"He did everything he's supposed to do to grab a spot," said Treliving. "He earned a job."
What stood out to Keefe?
"Pace was the big one," the coach said. "He has come in and fit in really well both on that line and within the room. His personality and such have really fit in well."
It was notable that Gregor joined some of Toronto's top players at the Drake concert last week.
On the ice, Gregor has skated consistently beside David Kampf and Ryan Reaves on the fourth line.
"We think he has more to offer in terms of how he plays with the puck and some things he can do offensively," said Keefe. "First and foremost, we think he is going to be a good fit to start with Kampf and Reaves. I have liked what I have seen from that line."
The Leafs also see potential for Gregor, who scored 10 goals in 57 games with the San Jose Sharks last season, to take on a role on the penalty kill.
Treliving revealed just how far down the depth chart 19-year-old centre Fraser Minten was at the start of camp.
"There was the ghost roster, Marlies, other," the general manager said with a smile. "He was in 'other' ... The reality is, especially when you're a good team, it's hard to get on the roster. It's like an exclusive club. It should be hard to get on it. He forced his way onto the team."
Minten will open the season on the third line where he will skate beside another rookie in Matthew Knies, 20.
"Him and Kniesy feed off each really well," Matthews said. "It's been really cool to see that chemistry grow."
"With Knies and Minten, they have played well together," Keefe agreed. "There is some natural chemistry, it seems, with those guys. It is not just their age or the youth factor. It is their games. They are both really hard on the puck. They have good speed. They are longer. They can get their sticks on pucks. Both are smart and responsible on both sides of the puck."
The Leafs will be keeping a close eye on Minten to see how he handles things early on.
"He's playing against men now," said Treliving. "It's not boys. How does he keep up? At the end of the day, can he help us win?"
If Minten goes back to the Western Hockey League, he will likely wear the 'C' for the Kamloops Blazers and be a leading candidate to represent Canada at the World Juniors.
"The overriding question is what's best for him," said Treliving. "We don't want to do anything in the next week, month, six months to impact what Fraser Minten is going to be for the next 10 years."
It was an uphill battle for Minten to make the team and it will be a challenge to maintain his spot.
"It's very, very seldom that a 19-year-old player comes in and helps you win," Treliving pointed out. "So, that's going to be part of it. Is it too much? One step at a time and keep looking at it daily."
Minten's emergence allowed William Nylander to shift back to the wing after starting camp at centre.
"If he doesn't start there, I don't look at it as a failure or that it didn't work," Treliving said. "It is always something that Sheldon has got in his bag that he can go back to."
It was Treliving who initially pushed for Nylander to get an extended look in the middle.
"His attributes are some that I look at as a centre," Treliving explained. "He has speed. It gets him the puck in the middle of the ice. If you look at a lot of centres now and how the game has changed, they come from underneath. Instead of starting out high, they come with speed underneath. He is a great distributor. He has great vision. He has lots of [centre] attributes. He has also been a pretty good winger. To me, it is a luxury. You can never have enough guys that play centre. Tomorrow night, I think there are seven guys — maybe eight — that could play centre. I think that is important. You can find wingers. The middle of the ice is really important."
All the players who the Leafs placed on waivers on Sunday cleared, including 33-year-old goalie Martin Jones.
"We were pretty excited when it happened," said Keefe. "It's a valuable asset to have the goaltending depth. It is as experienced a goalie as you are going to find that is going to come along the waiver wire there."
Jones started 42 games with the Seattle Kraken last season.
"I haven't had a chance to talk to him, but I know based on the feedback we have gotten from when Tre spoke to him, he is happy," Keefe said. "He wanted to be in Toronto. He wanted a chance to get settled. He knew coming here, with the AHL and NHL teams in the same city, it would be a good fit for him and his family."
Both Ilya Samsonov and Joseph Woll missed time last season due to injury.
Jones posted a .939 save percentage in three preseason games.
"I think it is really good to increase the depth there," Keefe said. "It was a big question mark, of course, especially with the type of preseason that he had. It is a good bounce for us for once."
London Knights centre Easton Cowan, who was a stand-out performer early in camp, is heading back to the Ontario Hockey League.
"Cowan is actually a little bit further ahead of where Minten was at this time last year, which is a credit to the player, the work he put in through the summer, and his character and demeanour coming in," said Keefe. "We are excited now to give him a chance to go back to London and continue to grow as a player, taking the things that he has learned here not just on the ice but being around the NHL players for as long as he was."
Left winger Bobby McMann, who is working his way back from a groin injury, was placed on waivers on Tuesday. The Leafs are hoping the 27-year-old, who played 10 games with them last season, will clear like Jones did and be available as a call-up later this year.
"He wasn't quite healthy enough to get into preseason for us, but he is another guy we hope can get up to speed and will factor in here for sure," said Keefe.
Lines at Tuesday's practice:
Bertuzzi -Matthews - Marner
Domi - Tavares - Nylander
Knies - Minten - Jarnkrok
Gregor - Kampf - Reaves
Rielly - Brodie
McCabe - Klingberg
Giordano - Liljegren
Power-play units at practice:
Klingberg, Matthews, Marner, Nylander, Tavares
Rielly, Liljegren, Domi, Jarnkrok, Bertuzzi