Prior to the beginning of the Maple Leafs' 2016-17 regular season, head coach Mike Babcock noted that, in the previous year, the team didn't have enough players for the jobs that were available. But as he met with the media Tuesday at Air Canada Centre to reflect on the 2016-17 campaign - one in which his team impressed many people by making the playoffs and pushing the powerful Washington Capitals to six games in their first-round series - Babcock acknowledged there's been a drastic change in internal competition for jobs among players, and that change is a great indicator of how far the Leafs have come in his second year with the franchise.
"In exit meetings today, you're telling (players) they've got to come back and win a job - that's just reality," Babcock told a packed room of reporters. "We'll have more people coming, and I think that's what it's all about: the more competition you have internally for those jobs, the better opportunity you're going to have for success long-term. And we're not good enough. If you look at Tampa and the quality organization they are, they still almost got in the playoffs with the injuries they had. That wouldn't have been possible for us. We're not at that level yet that's possible.
"So we have 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. So we've got a lot of work to do and we understand that as an organization. But I think it's important to enjoy the small steps you make or the big steps you make, and get ready and understand how hard it's going to be."
Leafs players also gathered at the ACC Tuesday to offer some perspective on their year, and while many of them were around during the disappointing 2015-16 season that ended with Toronto in 30th place in the league, everyone on the roster noted how different things were this time around - and how bright the future looks for a young squad with depth, speed and talent.
Sure, they wanted to go deeper into the post-season, but the Buds were pleased with their growth, both as individuals and as part of the larger unit.
"There is a little bit of that sense of disappointment, but at the same time, I think we can be proud in how hard we played and how far we came along as the year went on," said winger James van Riemdsyk, one of several veterans who set a new career high in points this year. "We're in a different place now as a team where now no one is going to be surprised by us. We're going to be getting everyone's best game."
Video: JVR speaks with the media at the locker clean out
"We're definitely proud of what we've done, how far we've come," added goalie Frederik Andersen, who played a career-best 66 regular-season games and was one of the team's most valuable components. "I really like the direction we're headed and the way everyone's buying in. I think we just keep maturing and everyone wants to get better."
The Leafs benefitted greatly from the contributions of a slew of rookies including centre Auston Matthews, wingers Mitch Marner, William Nylander, Connor Brown and Zach Hyman, and blueliner Nikita Zaitsev, but Toronto wouldn't have made the strides it did as an organization were it not for the efforts of veterans such as van Riemsdyk, centres Nazem Kadri and Tyler Bozak, and blueliners Jake Gardiner and Morgan Rielly. There was a balance to the franchise, and an off-ice chemistry that translated onto the playing surface.
"I don't know what more we could have asked of them," GM Lou Lamoriello said of the Leafs' veterans. "They bought in, they embraced it."
"I think we moulded really well together," added Bozak, who amassed a career-high 37 assists and 55 points in 78 games. "It's a really close team, one of the closer teams I've ever been on where everyone's a good friend and gets along really well. I think we had a great mix of different types of people that came together. When you have a lot of fun off the ice with your teammates, you kind of gel as a group and you get that chemistry and it works over onto the ice. So I think that helps."
Toronto's season ended before players and management wanted it to, but don't believe anyone who tells you the Leafs' success will result in a speeding-up of the organization's plans to build a long-term, year-in-and-year-out Stanley Cup frontrunner. Lamoriello, Babcock and president Brendan Shanahan all remain committed to the process of taking as much time that is necessary to construct a winner, and nothing that's happened in the Buds' centennial season will cause a change in that process.
In other words, Leafs brass are encouraged by what they've seen, but they're far from satisfied.
Video: Mike Babcock talks about the 2016-2017 season
"We want to make the playoffs (next year)," Babcock said. "We've created expectations amongst our fans and our city and I understand all that, but with Shanny, Lou and myself, we have a plan here to build a program, and that's what we're going to do. This isn't going to make us deviate from anything we're doing whatsoever, we're just going to keep building the program. As you see all the teams in the league, you see how many good teams there are, how hard it is to make the playoffs, and then how lucky and fortunate you have to be with injuries to win the Cup in the end. We'd like to put ourselves in a position to do that here."
"You can't be satisfied," added Lamoriello in regard to the productive season Toronto had in 2016-17. "Once you get satisfied, complacency sets in. Once complacency sets in, you're in trouble. You're going a different direction."
That said, the Leafs are thankful for the progress that was made this year, and they're still appreciative of the electricity that coursed through the city thanks to the success the organization achieved. That level of fan appreciation, combined with their naturally competitive instincts, is what will drive Toronto's players through the off-season and into training camp in the fall.
"I can't wait," Matthews said when asked about next season. "I think everybody in this locker room is excited, everybody in this organization, and the city of Toronto - everybody's excited for the future and what this team can bring."
"It's second to none, the best place to play I think," added Andersen. "It's amazing, the support we have in this community and the way they buy into this team. That's something you can't take for granted and we really appreciate. The support, it raised some hairs on your arms. So it's pretty cool."
The last word on this season should probably go to a Toronto-born-and-raised youngster like Hyman, who understands as well as anyone what the Leafs mean to their city, how that affects the players who represent it, and what a special season they had this year.
"Being from Toronto, you see the excitement around the city and the excitement from the fans," Hyman said, "Seeing Maple Leaf Square the way it was, and seeing the ACC packed and loud and everybody enjoying it and being along for the ride with us, is something that I'll always remember. And it's something you want to do again and go further next year and the year after and just keep building.
"It's fun - we've got the best fans, and the best support you can ask for, and it's like no other city."