What does this season mean to the Maple Leafs?

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The Toronto Maple Leafs have been through almost everything.

It has been an interesting last few years to say the least. I’d like to say it started with the Nikita Zaitsev signing in May of 2017 — a questionable choice. A year later, Lou Lamiorello, the Maple Leafs GM at the time was let go and Kyle Dubas was named the new GM.

There was a new head honcho for the Toronto Maple Leafs — someone younger, who can present new ideas and create a new team. That year was the hardest for Dubas and most Maple Leafs fans because 2018 was the year that William Nylander was an RFA, until December 1st.

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A few months later, Auston Matthews signed his five-year, $58.17 million contract and it felt like a weight was lifted off our shoulders. Yet again though, we didn’t know what was upon us going into that summer. The Maple Leafs and Mitch Marner couldn’t agree on a contract, and later that summer his agent, Darren Ferris, said that the then 22-year-old would soon leave for Europe if there was no solid contract offer.

Fast forward to September 13th, Marner signs a six-year, $65.3 million contract and flies out St. Johns, Newfoundland for training camp. Although a lot of fans were unhappy with how long it took to get him signed, there was finally some closure. That was, until November, which was a few months later.

(As I’m writing this, I’m thinking “wow, so much happened that year.”) And it has.

After a 9-10-4 record to start the 2019 season, Mike Babcock was relieved of his duties on November 20th. A few days after he was let go, we learn that Babcock allegedly told Marner (when he was a rookie) to give him a list of players who he thinks works the hardest and the least hardest.

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Later, it was said that Babcock released the list to a few of the players who were labelled ‘not hard workers’. And apparently, it wasn’t even the first circumstance where an event like that happened. This happened in January of 2017, where they’d later play the the Washington Capitals in the first round of the playoffs — the Maple Leafs were eliminated.

After being eliminated then, and against the Boston Bruins twice (three straight first-round playoff eliminations), the Maple Leafs look to climb higher this year than ever before with this group.

This season is different. 56 games, all against Canadian teams, and most are against less talented teams than ones they’d see in the Atlantic Division. Toronto is clearly the most talented team in the North Division, and with that comes an opportunity like no other.

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“This year is the opportunity to change the narrative.” Said Morgan Rielly during the Maple Leafs’ first day of training camp.

We know that one Canadian team is going to the Eastern Conference Finals and it very well could be Toronto. However, it’s going to take a lot from everyone for that to become reality. The Maple Leafs need consistency, mental toughness and the ability to close out games to be successful. With the additions of Joe Thornton, Wayne Simmonds (plus others) and bringing back Jason Spezza, they might just be able to do that.

But it was never just about bringing in veteran leadership — although it’s one of the places that needed to be addressed, the defence was also a main focus. Signing TJ Brodie, Mikko Lehtonen and Zach Bogosian will increase their chances of success significantly and it will make the Maple Leafs tougher to play against.

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Bolstering their defence with a Stanley Cup Champion, a number-two defenceman and the KHL’s defenceman of the year will make it more challenging for teams to score and even make it more difficult for teams to create chances around the net.

When you have players like Rielly and Brodie on your top pairing, and Jake Muzzin and Justin Holl behind them, you should be destined for greatness. “There’s really no player back there that you don’t want to play with,” said Rielly on the new-and-improved defence, “I think that he’s [Brodie] a huge add and I mean that’s Mikko [Lehtonen] as well and Bogo [Bogosian] as well.”

Although they’ve signed veteran players, brought in younger, more skilled ones and have made their team a lot better, there’s still more that has to be done. No, it’s not the practises and self-discipline — or the need to close out games (they do need that, but there’s a bigger picture here).

The Maple Leafs need to believe in each other — a lot more. I’m not talking about the belief in net because they already let teams pepper Frederik Andersen with shots, which means they trust his abilities. It’s about the way they play in front of him and letting him have a break. I guess you could say, play like they don’t trust him.

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They need more of it — because that right there is belief. There’s obviously a lot more that needs to be done by the Maple Leafs to become successful, but this is a stepping stone to that. Toronto’s top shot-blocker last season was Muzzin, who had 110 blocks. And that was good enough to place him 30th in the NHL, with the most being had by Oskar Klefbom who had 180 blocked shots.

The player on the Maple Leafs who had the second-most blocked shots was Justin Holl with 83 and third on the list was Rielly, who had 67. After those three, there was not one player who had more than 60 blocks last season. That’s less than one a game.

It doesn’t amount to everything that needs to be done by Toronto to have success, but again, it’s a small change that will bring something bigger.

Obviously, this season (you can say) is easier than the last. Toronto is the favourite to come out of the North Division on top. Although I wouldn’t say that just yet because teams like Montreal, Ottawa and even Winnipeg are unpredictable. I’d even put Vancouver in that category, too.

Teams such as Calgary and Edmonton are going to be tougher opponents, but the Maple Leafs shouldn’t take any team lightly.

“There’s going to be no off-nights.” Said Kyle Dubas on Sunday while speaking with the media via zoom. “I think this is a real fortunate thing for us and that this division is so competitive, and then it’ll force us to really continue to grow with that focus through the year.”

This season isn’t about showing fans that this team is ready to take the next step, it’s about showing themselves that. Putting that belief in their minds will go a long way, which is what they want to do.

If the Maple Leafs get through the first round, I believe anything is possible from them. Just like what the Washington Capitals did after defeating the Pittsburgh Penguins, the same events could happen for Toronto once they make it out of the first round. Dubas has said time and time again that this season will set you up for what happens in the playoffs.

Toronto can have success in the regular season, and if they do, you may finally see a Toronto Maple Leafs team who’s ready for the opportunity. If they don’t garner success, it may be more difficult for them to seize what’s ahead of them.

One thing is certain though: This team is different and hopefully that brings a different outcome than the past.

So what does this season mean for the Maple Leafs? Literally everything.