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Leafs ponder playoff series, begin planning for next season

by Adam Proteau Proteautype / MapleLeafs.com

As the Maple Leafs gathered one final time in their dressing room at Scotiabank Arena - the taste of their Game 7 loss to the Boston Bruins still bitter in their mouths - GM Kyle Dubas was one of dozens of organization members who looked back at the ups and downs of Toronto's first-round playoff series defeat. 

And at the end of his first year running the team, Dubas said he liked much of what he saw in certain post-season games his club played - think the speed and skill he has focused on developing and acquiring for the lineup - and pointed out which games exposed where the Leafs' group has to grow.

"(I)f you asked me that in Game 2, they obviously had a certain way they wanted to play that game," Dubas said, referring to Boston's 4-1 Game 2 win when asked if he was still confident in his belief in a high-speed, high-skilled Leafs lineup. "They handled us in that game pretty easily. And then as the series went on, after Game 5, I thought we played so well in Game 5 in their building. If there is any game if there's any way I would like to see our team consistently play, it's Game 5. 

"They then took out a couple of their heavier guys and inserted more speed and skill. So my conviction about speed and skill has not been shaken at all," Dubas continued. "I do think, like any team, as our guys get older they're going to naturally get heavier and grittier. As they accrue these scars and scar tissues from experiences like this, mentally they'll deal with it. 

"I thought, even in this series when things weren't going their way, our guys did a great job of being able to dig in and push back. In Game 6 here, we didn't play well. And then in the third period, we were able to push back again. (In) Game 7, we were down two goals, then we started driving back to try to tie the game. I wish there was a switch we could flip naturally to get there, but it comes only with experience."

Leafs head coach Mike Babcock echoed Dubas' comments regarding Toronto's second consecutive seven-game defeat at the hands of the more experienced Bruins, and gave Boston credit for hanging in there when the Buds held a 3-2 series lead before the Bruins won the final two games.

"We played a good, good Boston team," Babcock said Thursday. "We're not taking away anything from Boston, but there's pain in growing your group. This is the part where you're just trying to crawl in over the edge. This is where we are at."

Babcock, who guided the Leafs to their second straight 100-point regular-season - a feat no Leafs coach before him has achieved - said this early playoff exit was the most disappointing event since he arrived in Toronto to take the job in 2015-16. However, Babcock added that the defeat hasn't taken away how much the Leafs' core group of players enjoy competing alongside one another.

"Our guys really like each other," Babcock said. "We've got a really good group. We've got the best group we've had. We had a lot of guys who had real good years and played hard for another. We wanted to hang around a long time. You know in this business there is going to be change, so that makes it hard. We believe as a group - as a management team and (team president Brendan Shanahan) and (Dubas) and myself - that we are right there. Now, we've got to continue to build and add depth and add players."

The Leafs' development system has again done yeoman's work when it comes to honing the skills of youngsters playing with the American League's Toronto Marlies - the defending Calder Cup-champions just finished sweeping Rochester in the first round of the AHL's post-season - and the salary cap is likely to necessitate allowing certain Leafs veterans to leave via free agency and replacing them with NHL rookies. But Dubas said the top job this off-season is to sign restricted free agent winger - and Leafs' leading point-producer in the 2018-19 regular-season - Mitch Marner. The soon-to-be-22-year-old winger generated career highs in goals (26), assists (68) and points (94) in 82 games this year, and the Toronto native is central to the team's plans.

"(Marner's contract) is priority one for us," Dubas said Thursday. "I'll call (Marner's agent) Darren Ferris in the coming day or so and begin to see where he's at and how he'd like to proceed, and how Mitch and his family would like to proceed. Mitch has had an excellent season; he's a massive, massive part of everything we're doing here."

For his part, Marner made it clear he intends to return to the team and continue his bond with Toronto's core of talent, including centres Auston Matthews and John Tavares, and wingers Patrick Marleau and Zach Hyman. 

"I want to be here," Marner said Thursday. "I want to play for this team. I love the people in this locker room, I love the people that work in this organization. We're a tight-knit group. It's a special group to be a part of."

The Leafs' summer is longer than any of them believed it would be, and with the second round having started Thursday night, it will be painful for them to watch games being played that Toronto's players believe they ought to be part of. But part of the process of building a Stanley Cup champion, and a consistent, year-in, year-out contender is dealing with adversity and overcoming it.

Toronto's players didn't do a good enough job of that against Boston, but that doesn't mean the Leafs, Babcock, Dubas and Shanahan won't redouble their efforts to ensure a similar situation doesn't happen again. To the contrary: that will be the only thing that drives them through the off-season.

"We didn't reach the expectation I think we set out at the beginning of the season," Dubas said. "We have to continue to improve everything we do. It starts with me improving the job that I do…and it's up to me to work with (Babcock) to continue to have him improve and have his staff improve. We know we have to improve and get better, and that's the exciting part of it."

"When you have year-end meetings with the players, you're talking about getting stronger and working on the skills and doing all this," Babcock added. "You have an obligation as a management team to do a lot of work yourself to improve yourself as a coach, as a (GM), but also to improve the team within the salary (cap) and help the guys get where we want to go. That's going to be our focus. That conversation is going to go on for quite a bit here. We'll try to get ourselves set up to improve our hockey club.

"We think we are going in the right direction. We've still got to add depth to our lineup. Part of that is us developing more depth, part of it is our scouts finding more people and us signing more people. We need more. We just keep working away at it."

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