The Toronto Maple Leafs have to prove that snapping a nine-year Stanley Cup Playoff drought in a lockout-shortened season was the first step toward becoming a perennial contender, not a detour on what since 2004 has been their seemingly never-ending road to mediocrity.
"We were tired of being the butt of some of the jokes in the League, especially in our market, where we have fans that are very intensely involved," Toronto coach Randy Carlyle told NHL.com. "We had to do a better job of preparing ourselves and expecting more of ourselves to put ourselves in a position to compete for a playoff spot. We did a lot of things as a group and we're going to have to continue to grow. We can do it if we stick together, stick to the plan. We have a group that can play to a higher level. We're going to have to this season."
First, they're going to have to get over the heartbreak of how last season came to a stunning and crushing halt. The Maple Leafs had a three-goal lead in the third period of Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against the Boston Bruins, but blew it and eventually lost in overtime.
Toronto general manager Dave Nonis and Carlyle said the franchise has done its post-mortem on that loss and has moved on, but they should expect a deluge of questions about that meltdown from the inquisitive Toronto media on the first day of training camp.
"If you play those last 20 minutes over again 100 times, we probably win 99 times, but there is that element of unpredictability in sports and you don't know how things are going to play out," Nonis told NHL.com. "This situation, the bounces didn't go our way and we just have to move on. I don't expect it to have any long-lasting repercussions for our group."
What about when it comes up in training camp? How will the players handle retracing the steps that led to that rugged ending?
"I just don't think it's an issue," Nonis said. "Right after it was over it was hard to deal with and hard to discuss and our players really felt bad about it, but talking to some of the guys since then, I haven't heard one of them bring it up. They're more focused on the season we had, the fact that we took some significant steps forward and they want to build on it."
Nonis clearly thinks building on last season, when they finished fifth in the Eastern Conference with 57 points and at least took the eventual Eastern Conference champions to overtime in Game 7 on the road, starts with adding experienced, gritty players to the lineup.
Dave Bolland, acquired in a trade June 30, won the Stanley Cup twice with the Chicago Blackhawks, and his last significant contribution was the Cup-clinching goal late in the third period of Game 6 in Boston on June 24.
David Clarkson, signed to a seven-year deal July 5, scored 30 goals for the New Jersey Devils two seasons ago, when he helped them get to the Stanley Cup Final. He had 15 goals in 48 games last season.
They each fit the profile of a Randy Carlyle-type player because they're tough, don't back down, play well at both ends of the ice and go to the front of the net, especially Clarkson.
"We're not penciling David Clarkson in for 30 goals, but anybody that has put up 30 at any time in his career has got a bit of a touch," Nonis said. "David Bolland seems to be a guy that scores goals at clutch times."
Bolland likely is ticketed for a third-line role, but Carlyle said he would be comfortable moving him up in the lineup. Carlyle and Nonis cited Bolland's numbers as a junior player for the London Knights (130 points in 59 games in 2005-06) as a sign he can provide more offense than he has so far in the NHL (168 points in 332 regular-season games).
"The one thing we feel is if you put him with skill players, he can get them the puck and he's around the net, involved," Carlyle said. "We don't just deem him a checker; that's not how we view him at all."
Nor do the Maple Leafs view James Reimer as their clear-cut No. 1 goalie anymore. That changed June 23, when Nonis traded Matt Frattin and Ben Scrivens to the Los Angeles Kings for Jonathan Bernier, who won nine games with a 1.88 goals-against average and .922 save percentage in a backup role last season.
Bernier wasn't going to beat out Jonathan Quick to be the No. 1 in Los Angeles, but he'll be given that chance in Toronto, where Reimer put up 19 wins, a 2.46 GAA and .924 save percentage last season.
"[Reimer] had a pretty solid year, but it was only half a season," Carlyle said. "He's a young goaltender still cutting his teeth, finding a way to become a No. 1. The addition of Bernier solidifies our position. If we can create a competition between the two of them -- if you win you're in -- we think that's healthy for our group. That's the way you'd like to plan things, but things don't always go as planned in pro sports."
They actually did last season for the Maple Leafs, who reached their realistic goal of qualifying for the playoffs. The plan this season is to show they can do it in an 82-game season.
Toronto's team hasn't done that since 2003-04.
"A lot has been made of the grit and toughness and obviously that's a big part of how Randy likes his team to play, but we want to make sure that we're not one dimensional, that we have the ability to play a skill game, a grinding game," Nonis said. "We want to be able to play regardless of the opposition. Are we there? No. Are we closer? I think we're closer."
Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter: @drosennhl
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