Big pres­sure in the Big Smoke

The Daily Press (Timmins) - - SPORTS - Joshua Clipperton

TORONTO — The Toronto Maple Leafs have heard the noise and ap­pre­ci­ate the kind words.

That doesn’t mean they plan on pay­ing at­ten­tion to the opinions of odd­s­mak­ers and op­po­nents — mainly the ones peg­ging them as Stan­ley Cup favourites.

“You take it as a com­pli­ment, but you take it with a grain of salt as well,” Leafs de­fence­man Mor­gan Rielly said Thurs­day as Toronto opened train­ing camp with test­ing and med­i­cals. “We feel like we’ve got a long way to go to where we want to be.”

The Leafs got a lot closer on July 1 af­ter stun­ning the hockey world by con­vinc­ing free-agent cen­tre John Tavares — set to turn 28-years-old and in the prime of his ca­reer — to leave the New York Is­landers and join the team he cheered for grow­ing up in the sub­urbs west of Toronto.

“We added a big piece in John,” Rielly added. “I’m sure that has a lot to do with the pre­dic­tions.”

Those pre­dic­tions from the out­side also have to do with a healthy Aus­ton Matthews be­ing a year older, Mitch Marner con­tin­u­ing his red-hot sec­ond half of 201718, the de­fence corps im­prov­ing mi­nus out­side ad­di­tions, and goalie Fred­erik An­der­sen build­ing on a fran­chise-record 38 wins.

Oh, and re­stricted free agent Wil­liam Ny­lan­der com­ing to terms with Toronto on a new con­tract.

“Ex­pec­ta­tions, you can look at them two ways — you can look at them as pres­sure, or you can look at them as an op­por­tu­nity that you’ve earned,” said Leafs gen­eral man­ager Kyle Dubas, who re­placed Lou Lamor­iello in the spring. “Rel­a­tive to our play­ers, they’ve earned the re­spect of their peers through their per­for­mance to date, and I think John com­ing is the thing that moved our team into the up­per ech­e­lon.”

For his part, Tavares, who signed a mas­sive seven-year, US$77- mil­lion con­tract to come home, un­der­stands the pres­sure that awaits.

“I ob­vi­ously re­al­ized what and who the Toronto Maple Leafs are, how pas­sion­ate the city is about the game of hockey, which is some­thing spe­cial,” he said. “But a lot of that noise is stuff that I can’t re­ally con­trol or worry about. I just go by how I can make the big­gest im­pact I can on a daily ba­sis.”

Toronto, which bot­tomed out in 2015-16 in the throws of a full re­build that net­ted them Matthews with the first pick in the draft, made the play­offs the last two sea­sons af­ter miss­ing out 10 of the pre­vi­ous 11 cam­paigns. But both ended with first-round ex­its — in six games to Wash­ing­ton in 2016 and in seven games to Boston in 2017.

The Leafs, who a num­ber of NHL stars picked as le­git­i­mate con­tenders at the league’s re­cent me­dia tour and have among the short­est Cup odds at Las Ve­gas sports books, will once again be with­out a cap­tain to start the sea­son, choos­ing in­stead to go with Tavares, Rielly and Pa­trick Mar­leau as as­sis­tants.

“You’ve got guys who’ve been around,” said Bab­cock, whose team be­gins on-ice ses­sions Fri­day in Ni­a­gara Falls, Ont. “They’ve got some bat­tle scars on ’em, and they know that’s just noise.”

Matthews, who fin­ished sec­ond on the team with 63 points last sea­son be­hind Marner’s 69 points de­spite miss­ing 20 games with var­i­ous in­juries, Tavares and Nazem Kadri make up Toronto’s lethal three-headed mon­ster down the mid­dle that should keep op­pos­ing coaches up at night.

“It def­i­nitely makes it tough,” said Matthews, who turns 21 on Mon­day. “All of us had 30 or more goals last year.

“It’s pretty hard to find, three cen­tres of our cal­i­bre to match up against.”

Bab­cock said im­me­di­ately af­ter Toronto signed Tavares that he en­vi­sioned start­ing camp with him be­tween Marner and Zach Hy­man, and Matthews cen­tring Ny­lan­der and Mar­leau.

The only prob­lem with that is Ny­lan­der re­mains away from the team as his rep­re­sen­ta­tives ne­go­ti­ate with the Leafs on a new deal.

“We’re con­tin­u­ing to have di­a­logue,” Dubas said. “This is not an un­com­mon sit­u­a­tion.”

Toronto let un­re­stricted freeagent for­wards Tyler Bozak, James van Riems­dyk and Leo Ko­marov, as well as de­fence­man Ro­man Po­lak, walk this sum­mer, con­tent that there’s enough tal­ent com­ing down the pipe to fill the void.

Apart from get­ting Ny­lan­der in the fold, the Leafs have ques­tions on the blue line, which while solid with Rielly, Hain­sey, Jake Gar­diner and Nikita Zait­sev, has two holes to fill and lacks a true No. 1.

Toronto set a fran­chise record with 49 vic­to­ries and 105 points last year, al­though those num­bers are a lit­tle mis­lead­ing when tak­ing into ac­count that three of Pat Quinn’s teams in the early 2000s cracked 100 points — be­fore the league in­tro­duced the shootout to set­tle ties.

The ques­tion is, how­ever, can this ver­sion of the Leafs go even higher, es­pe­cially when it mat­ters most in the play­offs?

“Where we’re go­ing to be at the end of the year, I don’t know,” Rielly said. “But I be­lieve in us as a group.”

Craig Robert­son/ Post me­dia Net work

Aus­ton Matthews faces the me­dia throngs dur­ing the first day of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ train­ing camp. Matthews and the Leafs are con­sid­ered by many to be Stan­ley Cup con­tenders.

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