At the conclusion of last season, Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock told a media throng that, when the campaign began, the organization felt as if it had more on-ice opportunities available than players who were able to claim them. But a lot has changed in a year, and although Babcock wasn't on hand for the kickoff of training camp Thursday - his duties coaching Team Canada at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey take priority in the short-term - the sense from both Toronto's management team and Leafs players themselves is that competition for jobs and ice time will be especially fierce this time around.
"I think it's going to be a very competitive camp," Leafs GM Lou Lamoriello said to reporters at the team's practice facility. "We do have depth in just about every position at different levels. There's always an unexpected - you always hope the unexpected is in a positive way, rather than a negative. We're all looking forward to (camp), just simply to see where the unknown is."
"There's a lot of good young players, and obviously there are some veteran guys that are here on (professional tryout contracts), and guys with contracts that are fighting for jobs," added winger Matt Martin, who begins his first year in Toronto after signing a free agent contract this summer. "You're never safe in this league, and bodies can be moved. So we've got to be sharp and ready to go."
The Leafs have 79 players who'll take part in camp at some point - many of their key cogs are still competing at the Toronto-based World Cup - and the organization once again will set up shop in the friendly confines of Halifax to thrill the East Coast-based members of Leafs Nation. And they'll have with them both grizzled veterans - including 33-year-old, 12-year NHL veteran Brooks Laich - as well as fresh faces (such as forward Mitch Marner and a slew of other youngsters who got a taste of NHL action last season) looking to solidify their positions on the roster.
It really doesn't matter what any of their backgrounds are at this point - making themselves stand out in a crowd is the goal. And the players, to a man, are confident they're in position to do so this season.
"I just feel more confident with the puck, more confident doing things with the puck, and that's quite important," said the 19-year-old Marner, who is coming off a tremendous season in the Ontario Hockey League with the London Knights. "You want to go in playing with the puck and making sure you're making plays that you used to, and my first year felt like I was rushing everything and not focusing on the game I play."
"I think it's going to be very competitive," added Laich, who was acquired from Washington in late February last season and immediately became one of the Leafs' leaders in the dressing room. "If you look at the roster, there's a lot of (young) guys that are NHL-ready that are going to be pushing for spots. We have some good veterans as well that are going to be fighting for ice time. I think it's going to be very competitive.
"They're going to have to do something to stand out, so you're going to have to get noticed in some way. And also, it's tough - you've got to come in and unseat a veteran. There's a guy that maybe has a job, and you've got to come and take it from. So you've got to stand out, you've got to get better every day. You maybe have a little bit of a leash with some inexperience or a few mistakes, but with the amount of young guys we have, I don't think (that leash) is going to be very long. I think the coaching staff is going to expect real attention to detail."
Toronto's first pre-season game is scheduled for Sept. 26 against the Atlantic division-rival Ottawa Senators in Halifax, and they'll take on the Sens again - this time, in Ottawa on Oct. 12 - to kick off the 2016-17 campaign. But for the next three weeks, their focus will be on honing their game as both individuals and a collective unit, and having a serious competition for jobs will push them to be as good as they can in both regards.
"There's obviously a lot of competition, and I think that's good," said forward Zach Hyman, who played most of the 2015-16 season with the American Hockey League Marlies, but who availed himself well in a short stint with the Leafs. "You've always got to be on your toes, and I think it's no different whether you're a first-year guy, second-year guy, third-year guy. Everybody wants to come to camp and get ready for the season.
"We have so many good players competing for a limited amount of spots, and I think that brings out the best in everybody."