One year ago, a playoff berth for Brendan Shanahan’s Maple Leafs was a long-term aspiration.
But somewhat miraculously, and with some help from Lady Luck courtesy of a lottery ball, the team got faster, smarter, and most of all, competitive.
With first-overall pick Auston Matthews leading the charge in what is almost assuredly a Calder Trophy-winning season for the young phenom, the Leafs astounded the hockey world in 2016-17 by winning 40 games, improving their previous year’s basement-dwelling season by 26 points.
In Toronto’s first playoff appearance in a non-lockout year since 2004, the heavy underdogs took the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Washington Capitals to a six-game playoff series in which every game was decided by a single goal; five of them in overtime.
And to a man, as the players cleaned out their lockers for the season on Tuesday, the determination in their faces, and the stoic expressions of coach Mike Babcock and general manager Lou Lamoriello made it unquestionably clear that this team will not be satisfied with mere post-season participation. They want to contend.
“You can always get better. You never get satisfied. Once you get satisfied, complacency sets in,” Lamoriello said when asked how much the roster will change in the off-season. “Once complacency sets in, you’re in trouble. You’re going in a different direction. What we did is we took a step forward. We took a step forward this year at the experience end of it, and players believing they can do certain things, but it’s only a step.”
Indeed the emergence of Matthews and fellow rookies Mitch Marner and William Nylander electrified the city with their incredible skill, showcasing an unprecedented abundance of young talent in the Leafs organization.
Yet as entertaining as the Leafs were, their opponents handily exposed their glaring weaknesses, particularly on the blue line. Furthermore, Toronto had the benefit of remaining relatively healthy during the course of the season. As coach Mike Babcock was quick to identify, the team doesn’t yet have the depth to stay in the hunt in the event of multiple players sustaining long-term injuries. He cited as a counterexample the banged-up Tampa Bay Lightning, who nearly caught the Leafs in the standings.
“We’re not at that level yet where that’s possible,” Babcock said. “We’ve got to continue to stay healthy but we’ve got to grow our group, too. We’ve got to get much deeper as an organization. It was an unbelievable, positive year for us. We made the playoffs. But we finished eighth and we’re out. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”
The refusal to merely settle into complacency perpetuates from the boardroom right into the dressing room, among veterans and end-of-first-year players alike. Marner, who led all NHL rookies with 42 assists in the regular season despite being junior-eligible, is quickly absorbing the edict.
“Obviously we’re going to have higher expectations,” Marner said. “I think we came a long way this season, but we still have a long way to go. I think we’ve all just got to believe in each other a little bit more. We’re going to have to stick together, and accomplish this goal together.”
The Shana-plan is ahead of schedule in Toronto. As the victories accumulate, so does the weight of the expectations that arise with success.
In 2016, Rob wrote “Hockey’s Enforcers: A Dying Breed”, now available at Chapters and Indigo stores everywhere.