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Maple Leafs tempering increased expectations

Optimism high in Toronto, but Shanahan preaching patience

by Dave McCarthy / Correspondent

TORONTO -- Ask anyone who works for the Toronto Maple Leafs about a timeline for when they will compete for the Stanley Cup and they will steer clear of the question. 

Toronto mayor John Tory had no such reservations about doing so during an event Tuesday to announce the Maple Leafs' "Next Generation Game" against the Carolina Hurricanes on Dec. 19.

"The Toronto Maple Leafs are going to win the Stanley Cup within the period of time that I am the mayor and I hope I'll get a second term," said Tory, who is up for re-election in 2018. "So that means you have five years, but I know it's going to happen."

Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan appreciated Tory's outlook but was not about to make any promises.

"Optimism is certainly a nice thing, but I think for the people who are with the team, the players, the management, we're very focused on all the little things that we have to do," Shanahan said. "It's great that people are excited, but at the same time we know how much work still has to go into this."

There's a lot of enthusiasm surrounding the Maple Leafs after they made the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time in a full NHL season since 2003-04. But Shanahan was quick to point out that not much has been accomplished yet. Toronto lost in the Eastern Conference First Round to the Washington Capitals in six games.

"I'm a little hesitant because at the end of the day we got into the playoffs in our 81st game," he said. "We didn't get past the first round and yet still there was a lot of happiness and joy and optimism about where we can go.

"We understand that there is a lot of work ahead of us. We're pleased with the work our players have put in. Our coaching staff and our management have been phenomenal, very dedicated. I think that our fans like our players and I think that our players like our fans. The players enjoy being Maple Leafs and love what's happening in the city, but [fans] are also smart enough to know, which is incredible because it's still a very young, inexperienced team, they seem to understand that they are just getting started."

With expectations increased compared to last season, it will be important for the Maple Leafs to not get caught up in the pressure that comes along with it.

"We've got such a great coaching staff and I think [coach] Mike [Babcock] keeps them very focused on what their job is that day, each day," Shanahan said. "These guys, by the time they're getting into the NHL, they've dealt with expectations. You can't be a champion in any sport unless you know how to deal with expectations and pressure, and I think we've got a lot of people who embrace that."

Dealing with that pressure often falls on the leadership group to set an example for the rest of the team. But the Maple Leafs have not had a captain since defenseman Dion Phaneuf was traded to the Ottawa Senators on Feb. 9, 2016, and there seems to be no rush to name a successor.

"I think it's important to have leadership and you don't have to be a captain to show leadership on the ice or in the [locker] room," Shanahan said. "For us, it's always going to be about having as many leaders as possible, and when Mike and [general manager] Lou [Lamoriello] and our staff decide that it's time and that it's the right move, they'll do it. For me, there are more important things that are going into the process now, and when the time is right, the time is right, and we'll know it and we'll make that decision then."

Asked specifically whether center Auston Matthews, who turns 20 on Sunday, would be a candidate for the captaincy, Shanahan instead suggested the Maple Leafs have a few appropriate choices for the role.

Video: Auston Matthews lands at No. 4

"I think we have several players who have shown leadership, and Auston has done a great job in that as well," Shanahan said. "I think it's a story for the press. I don't think it's a story for our players and it's not a story for us. What I like about our team is how much they really like each other and support each other, and a lot of them in different ways are showing leadership."

Forward Patrick Marleau, who signed a three-year, $18.75 million contract (average annual value $6.25 million) on July 2, figures to factor prominently into the leadership group. Marleau, 37, has played 1,493 regular-season NHL games, most among players signed for this season, and 177 playoff games.

Signing Marleau could be viewed as an indicator that the Maple Leafs believe they are ready to compete for the Stanley Cup this season, potentially viewing Marleau as a missing piece to supplement a young core. Shanahan, however, does not see it that way.

"I think that it's a lot more simple than that," he said. "He's an excellent hockey player and a great example and ambassador for our young players. You talk about longevity and preparation and the professionalism that Patrick brings, and he's a good hockey player too. I don't think we were trying to send a message as much as we had an opportunity to add a good hockey player to our team, someone that we think would be an excellent fit and an excellent role model, and we were lucky to get him."

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