As the Maple Leafs gathered in their west-Toronto practice facility to meet the media and head out together to Niagara Falls and kick off training camp Friday, there was an overwhelming sense of optimism in the air - both inside and outside the arena. Following a 2016-17 season in which they surprised a number of people by making the playoffs and pushing the Presidents' Trophy-winning Washington Capitals to six games in their first-round series, Leafs players and management understand their legion of fans now will be looking for at least as much success this year, and with new additions to the roster and the growth of their younger players, the organization believes it has the components to achieve bigger and better things.
More importantly, it believes it has the strength of character and attention to detail that will help sustain the franchise as it navigates the ups and downs that every club inevitably deals with.
"Optimism is certainly a nice thing, but I think for the people that are with our team and with our players and with our management, we're all focused on the little things," Leafs president Brendan Shanahan told reporters Tuesday. "It's great that people are excited, but we know how much work has gone into this - and still will."
By and large, the Leafs are bringing back the same group of players who carved out a 40-win, 95-point regular-season, but there are a few notable additions: forward Patrick Marleau - an accomplished veteran who's scored at least 25 goals in 12 of 19 NHL seasons - defenceman Ron Hainsey (who won a Stanley Cup with the Pittsburgh Penguins last year - and centre Dominic Moore (returning to Toronto for his second stint as a Leaf) are the most experienced new faces, but the Buds' training camp roster also includes skilled youngsters such as Swedish blueliners Calle Rosen and Andreas Borgman, both of whom signed with the team in May after playing in the Swedish League last season.
But for the most part, management is continuing to build on the foundation of talent that thrilled Leafs Nation last year. All franchises undergo some degree of turnover, but the Buds are pleased to augment a core that gelled on and off the ice in the hope they can take a competitive step forward.
"I think we're an improved team talent-wise from last year, experience-wise from last year," head coach Mike Babcock Thursday in regard to the new members of the team. "We've done more, and now we'd like to take a step - and we think these guys, because of the men they are as much as the players they are, are going to help us with that."
Toronto's core members include sophomore forwards Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander, all of whom proved to be dynamic, creative players who belong at the NHL level and are only at the beginning of what will be long careers in the league. But they're hardly alone as crucial components of the Leafs' blueprint to win. Indeed, veterans including forwards Nazem Kadri, James van Riemsdyk, Tyler Bozak and defensemen Jake Gardiner, Morgan Rielly and Nikita Zaitsev all contributed valuable minutes in 2016-17 and will be looked to for leadership and production this season. And Babcock likes what he's seen from informal workouts prior to the start of camp.
"To me, what training camp's all about is you get to show off how much work you did in the summer," Babcock said. "The best of the best in any walk of life are trying to reinvent themselves, whether that be with a skills coach, a strength coach, a nutrition person. You're trying to find a way to take another step to add on layers for your career, and that could be because you're trying to make your career longer because you're at the end; it could be because you're trying to get a spot on the team; it could be because you're trying to be an 18-minute (a night) forward…In order to take steps, you've got to put in the work, and what I like about our group, a lot of our guys have put in the work."
The Leafs' pre-season schedule begins Monday with a showdown against the Senators in Ottawa, and kicks off a grind that will conclude - at least, for a few days, the Buds hope - on April 7 with a home game against their arch-rivals from Montreal. But between now and then, Babcock and his staff intend to stay the course regardless of what comes their way as the franchise continues focusing on the ultimate goal: creating a year-in, year-out, championship contender.
"Last year I thought we grew tremendously during the year," Babcock said. "And that's what's real important here, not to get ahead of ourselves: you just take a step a day. I need guys to be all-in, every day. That's what I expect. Be focused, be all-in every single day, and we'll get better together, gradually."