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Maple Leafs focused on building off success from 2016-17

Matthews, young core know expectations are high after going from last place to playoffs

by Dave McCarthy / Correspondent

TORONTO -- The focus for the Toronto Maple Leafs this season is to try and build on their success from 2016-17 and be even better.  

"We're excited. It's a pretty motivated group, so individually and as a team everybody wants to take a step forward and continue to grow," center Auston Matthews said at the Maple Leafs golf tournament at Rattle Snake Point Golf Club in Milton, Ontario, on Monday.

The Maple Leafs pushed the Presidents' Trophy-winning Washington Capitals to six games -- each decided by one goal, five in overtime -- in the Eastern Conference First Round before losing. Although it wasn't the result Toronto wanted, the season was a resounding success considering the Maple Leafs finished last in the NHL with 69 points in 2015-16. Toronto also played the majority of its games last season with eight or more rookies in the lineup.

Veteran forward Tyler Bozak, who had an NHL career-high 55 points (18 goals, 37 assists) last season, said the success only serves as motivation moving forward.

"We expect a lot from each other and everyone wants to improve and get better as a team, so we're excited for things to get going," said Bozak, who is the longest tenured Maple Leafs player (513 games). "As athletes, we always expect to improve and play better as individuals and as a team. We expect to be better than we were last year and we expect each guy to take another step forward. We want to win and that's what we expect to do."

Video: Can the Maple Leafs be a Stanley Cup contender?

Toronto will not have the benefit of catching opponents by surprise anymore. Led by Matthews, who won the Calder Trophy as the top rookie in the League, and forwards William Nylander and Mitchell Marner, who were tied for third in scoring among NHL rookies, it is no longer a secret what the Maple Leafs are capable of doing. Matthews said he even started to notice teams playing them differently as the 2016-17 season progressed.

"I think halfway through the year, that was kind of the case. Teams figured out we could play and we were a good team, and we weren't taken as lightly," Matthews said. "This year, it's going to be no different; we're not going to be taken lightly. Now everybody kind of knows the power we have. It's not going to be easy, but we're hopefully looking to be in the same position we were in last year, getting in the playoffs and going from there."

The true test will be how the Maple Leafs manage the heightened expectations and increased pressure. With no real expectations last season, at least from the fan base, any success Toronto had was taken as a bonus. That will not be the case this season, especially after the Maple Leafs brought in veteran forwards Patrick Marleau and Dominic Moore, and defenseman Ron Hainsey, who helped the Pittsburgh Penguins win the Stanley Cup last season. Those moves carry a perception that the Maple Leafs will be considered a Cup contender. The bar has been set and fans will expect them to measure up to it, and the players know it.

"I think we have to go about it the way we've been going about things last year," said forward Connor Brown, who had 36 points (20 goals, 16 assists) last season as a rookie, when asked how he will handle the increased pressure. "Just be prepared for Game 1 and take it slow. You can't look at the season as a whole, especially before training camp even opens up. We've got to control the controllables and do our best."

Brown said the players know the season will come with highs and lows. It must be remembered that many of the players instrumental to the success last season -- Matthews, Nylander, Marner, Brown, forward Zach Hyman and defenseman Nikita Zaitsev -- are entering their second full NHL season and that there is still much to be learned.

"We're all focused on doing better this year. We're all pushing ourselves to get better," Nylander said. "We're trying to keep our expectations somewhat the same, just get better every game because we're still young and we're growing." 

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