‘It’s time’: Maple Leafs know time is running out

TORONTO – Kyle Dubas didn’t just double up.

The Toronto Maple Leafs the GM pushed his chips all-in — a move that could go a long way in defining his tenure in the pressured role he’s held since the spring of 2018.

Dubas again resisted any potential off-season urge to blast the core of his highly skilled but hungry roster in the playoffs after another first-round outing last May.

Toronto, in truth, has shown better than in past post-season failures. The result – a seven-game loss to two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning – was the same, but the feeling was that the Leafs were on the right track and deserved a chance to come back.

However, with his contract due to expire at the end of the 2022-23 campaign, Dubas might not have the chance to make a similar move if a group he unconditionally backs are again unable to deliver on their promises.

So where does this belief come from?

“Being around the group every day,” the 36-year-old executive said at the start of training camp. “When the band was younger, I think you try to establish yourself. Now they are trying to prove together that they can win.

“I don’t expect people to hear this and believe it. They’ll want us to show it, and that’s 100% okay. But I see what the band is talking about every day.

That optimism is well founded, at least on paper and when looking at regular season results.

The playoffs were another story.

A team led by defending Hart Trophy winner and 60 goals Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander have failed to advance to the second round in six consecutive seasons since the club returned to the playoffs in 2016-17 .

On the other hand, Toronto also fell to a team that has been to the Stanley Cup Finals three of the last four seasons (Boston in 2019, Montreal in 2021 and Tampa in 2022) since future captain John Tavares signed in the summer of 2018. .

The Leafs last played in the playoffs in 2004 — before the NHL introduced a salary cap and before Twitter existed — and have the longest league drought since 1967.

“It’s going to be a narrative,” said Matthews, a two-time defending Maurice (Rocket) Richard Trophy winner as an NHL point guard, of past playoff stumbles. “We can only control what we can control.”

Head coach Sheldon Keefe said the challenge ahead is clear for a team vying for a division title for the first time in a regular season since 1999-00.

“We certainly accept that,” he said. “An incredible opportunity for us to continue to grow as a team and to embrace this.”

“We’re not going to give up,” added defenseman Morgan Rielly. “We are not going to abandon this process.”

Fellow Canadian Jake Muzzin, who won the Stanley Cup with Los Angeles in 2014, said it was “time” to return the favor.

“We have a good opportunity,” he said. “You want to take advantage of it.”

For a man, players know their GM has placed his neck on the line.

“He put the trust in us and kept the team together,” Nylander said. “He bet everything on us to succeed.”

CAN MATTHEWS GO BEYOND 60?

In 2021-22, Toronto’s MVP became the first NHL player to reach 60 goals in a season since Steven Stamkos ten years ago.

Matthews, who has two years left on his contract and can sign an extension next summer, is reluctant to discuss statistical targets. But 65 goals – Alex Ovechkin in 2007-08 being the last player to reach that mark – could be achieved if the 25-year-old can stay in the lineup.

His 60 goals last season came despite missing 10 games through injury and suspension.

“I don’t think you’ll ever know what to expect,” Rielly said of Matthews. “I wouldn’t expect anything more than a great season and a really motivated person who is one of the best players – one of the best athletes – in the world.”

FOLD QUESTION MARK

The Leafs have gone through a major overhaul of their goaltending department, waving goodbye to starter Jack Campbell and underachieving Petr Mrazek.

Stepping into the spotlight are replacements with chips on their shoulders to Matt Murray and Ilya Samsonov.

A two-time Cup winner with Pittsburgh, Murray had two miserable last seasons with Ottawa, while Samsonov – a first-round pick in 2015 – was let go by Washington.

“A new opportunity,” Matthews said of Toronto’s new ply duo. “Two guys who feel like they have a lot to prove.”

SLEEP TIME

The Battle of Ontario has lain dormant since the mid-2000s.

But with the Ottawa Senators coming out of reconstruction and the Leafs among the big hitters in the Atlantic Division, the provincial rivalry could heat up even further starting Saturday at Scotiabank Arena.

Another date circled is the March 11 return to Toronto for Campbell, who signed with the Edmonton Oilers in free agency. The Leafs will also face their former teammate on March 1 in the Alberta capital.

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on October 9, 2022.

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© 2022 The Canadian Press

Carol N. Valencia