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Maple Leafs now must guard against complacency

Making playoffs, strong series against Capitals 'only a step'

by Dave McCarthy / Correspondent

TORONTO -- The Toronto Maple Leafs went from last in the NHL last season to the Stanley Cup Playoffs in this one, all while playing at least seven rookies in almost every game.

Though it was a significant improvement from one season to the next, Maple Leafs management made it clear Tuesday that nothing will be put on cruise control yet.

"You can always get better," general manager Lou Lamoriello said two days after Toronto was eliminated in a six-game, Eastern Conference First Round series by the Washington Capitals.

"You never get satisfied; once you get satisfied, complacency sets in. Once complacency sets in, you're in trouble, you're going in a different direction. 

"What we did, we took a step forward this year in the experience end of it, players believing they can do certain things, but it's only a step."

Video: NHL Tonight crew talks Maple Leafs, Matthews

The feeling around the Maple Leafs is very different from what the Montreal Canadiens are experiencing, for example, after losing to their first-round series to the New York Rangers in six games. The Canadiens, after winning the Atlantic Division, expected a long playoff run. The Maple Leafs can view just making the playoffs as a success when few expected that to be possible this season.

"We've got to grow our group; we've got to get deeper as an organization," Toronto coach Mike Babcock said. "It was an unbelievable positive year for us, we made the playoffs, but we finished eighth (in the Eastern Conference) and we're out, so we've got a lot of work to do and we understand that as an organization."

Compared to recent ends of seasons, the mood was night and day. This year, for the first time in a long time, a clear path to success can be seen.

"Very different, there's a lot of positivity in the air," Maple Leafs forward Nazem Kadri said. "Even though we lost and we felt like we had a good chance of advancing, there is that part of the disappointment, and it [stinks] that it's kind of all starting to set in that we have to go home now, which is unfortunate because I know all of us wanted to keep playing. It's certainly positive, we've had a great year and we're proud of ourselves."

Defenseman Morgan Rielly played three seasons for Toronto that ended far short of where this one did.

"When you're not in it and you're not trying to compete in playoffs, you kind of start booking flights and whatnot," the 23-year-old said. "In our position, you wanted to do everything to keep playing. We were intending to play tonight, so when it ends that quickly, it's tough.

"I think having that chance to play in the playoffs and enjoy that atmosphere around it, it just makes you more motivated and it makes you want to do it every year."

The core of the team, including rookie forwards Auston Matthews, William Nylander and Mitchell Marner, will draw on the experience of their first full NHL seasons and six Stanley Cup Playoff games.

Defensemen Matt Hunwick and Roman Polak, forwards Brian Boyle and Ben Smith, and backup goalie Curtis McElhinney are Toronto's unrestricted free agents. Lamoriello did not discuss its interest in bringing back specific players, or the possibility of making other moves to improve, but cautioned against knee-jerk decisions.

"You'll do whatever you can to get better, but you do not do things for the sake of doing them," Lamoriello said. "If you can't bring in the right type of player, like a Brian Boyle, then you do nothing. We don't know what's going to be available."

Toronto played five overtime games against Washington, which had the NHL's best record in the regular season, with the other game also decided by one goal.

"From our locker room, I don't think [expectations] change much, but I'm sure from the outside, I mean, I don't think anybody really expected us to make the playoffs, but that was our goal the whole time," Matthews said. "Next year we're going to push for the same thing but a little bit of a different result."

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