As the Maple Leafs gathered for their final practice in the calendar year 2018, the general sentiment among players was one of gratefulness for the growth in their collective game as a team. But, more importantly, the Leafs were focusing on taking the next step as a group and making 2019 one to remember for Leafs Nation.
"Yeah, I think 2018 had a lot of good things for me personally, and for the organization," said winger Kasperi Kapanen, who excelled as an NHLer after being recalled from the eventual Calder Cup-winning Marlies on January 28. "Getting to have a successful playoffs was really big, and now I feel like things are going in the right direction for me here. We've got a good team and we have a chance to win every night, and that's what you want as a player."
"What I tried to impress upon the players today is we had a pretty good 2018, we won lots of games," added head coach Mike Babcock. "In saying all that, we now are in a spot that we expect more and would like to get more, so we have to improve on how we play if we're going to get more."
The Leafs have put together a 26-11-2 record through this point in the 2018-19 season, a mark that has put them in the upper echelon of the NHL. But Babcock and the players are fully aware they'll be ultimately judged by their playoff success. Until the post-season rolls around, though, they've got to be intent on improving, both as an individual and as part of the team.
Goaltender Garret Sparks is a perfect example: Sparks was a major cog in the Marlies' championship run last year earning American Hockey League goaltender of the year award honours, and he's made the jump to the NHL to serve as backup to Frederik Andersen. That's about as eventful as it gets for a young player, and Sparks is happy to come through the adventure healthy and prepared to contribute whenever Babcock calls upon him.
"A lot has happened in the last 365 (days)," Sparks said of his experiences in 2018. "I took a little time yesterday to reflect on everything. If you could've told me that was the way it [would go] on Jan 1, 2018, I would've taken it, 100 percent."
The Leafs are coming off a flat performance in a 4-0 loss to the New York Islanders Saturday, but the schedule-maker has been kind - giving them four days off before taking on their next opponent, the Minnesota Wild, in a special 2 p.m. start - and Babcock is emphasizing the positive results that came before Saturday's defeat.
"We just went 5-0-1 and had a good run," Babcock said. "We've had three five-game winning streaks, two with an overtime loss in the six games. Obviously, you'd like to get back at it, but what we did today was talk more about where we are at coming up to the midway point. Because we've got four days where you are not coming off a break and you actually have four days to get better, we are going to use rest and practice to do that.
"It's just where we're going and what we've got to do to get better - that is what we tried to focus on here today."
And that message won't change in 2019.