The Toronto Maple Leafs feel like the problem has been identified.
And they spent much of the off-season reshaping their roster, and looking inwards, in hopes of correcting the issue.
A team loaded with talent up front — Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Mitch Marner and William Nylander chew up nearly half the roster's salary cap space — the Leafs have been consistently inconsistent down the stretch the last few seasons, which has in turn impacted playoff seeding and helped contribute to early exists.
With an abbreviated 56-game campaign set to begin Wednesday, Toronto is aiming to flip the script in a one-time-only all-Canadian division necessitated by COVID-19 and border restrictions related to the pandemic.
"There's been a theme," defenceman Morgan Rielly said looking back at past stumbles. "This is an opportunity for us to change that. Over the course of a year like this there's going to be lots of surprises, there's going to be lots of change, and we don't really know what to expect just yet. But as we go it's important that we're able to change old habits and be in a spot at the end of the year that we're proud of.
"This year is an opportunity to change the narrative."
General manager Kyle Dubas, whose team is the betting favourite in the newly formed North Division, made a number of moves in the off-season to shift the culture on the ice and in the locker room with acquisitions that included veterans Joe Thornton, Wayne Simmonds, T.J. Brodie and Zach Bogosian
"If we go back and we look at teams that have success in the playoffs, they have always been excellent teams in the regular season to set themselves up," said Dubas, poised to begin his third season in charge. "We've had lulls and our form has slipped.
"We need to eliminate that first and foremost."
Toronto, which hasn't won a playoff series since 2004 and last hoisted the Stanley Cup in 1967, faltered before the 2019-20 season was suspended in March due to the coronavirus. That pushed the Leafs into the qualifying round of the NHL's summer restart, where they fell to the Columbus Blue Jackets in a best-of-five series.
"We still feel that," head coach Sheldon Keefe said. "That perhaps excites me the most — the opportunity to continue to grow with the people that we've added and the renewed focus of the returning players."
Blue-liner Jake Muzzin said the additions should send a clear message from the top down.
"They brought in guys that have experience and are hungry to win," he said. "It shows from management they want to win now. It should be encouraging to the group and the guys that have been here.
"It's time to make a big step with this club and push for a championship."
The Leafs' best player was on pace to surpass 50 goals with 47 through 70 games when the 2019-20 schedule was halted. The 23-year-old added six points in five post-season contests, but is hungry to take another step. "I definitely want to play to a new level," Matthews said. "That series against Columbus, not the result we wanted, but individually I felt really good in that series. I thought there were definitely some positive things I could take."
The likes of Thornton, Simmonds and Bogosian, especially, coupled with the return of Jason Spezza, should help lighten the leadership load on Leafs captain John Tavares, while also helping to guide Toronto's young stars. "They have an understanding of what it takes to play at a high level," Tavares said. "There just seems to be a presence about them and the way they're able to carry themselves. We're really fortunate, not just for what they're going to bring on the ice, but what they're going to bring off of it."
Toronto's No. 1 goalie is entering the final year of his contract. At 31, Andersen has plenty of gas left in the tank, but it will be an interesting situation to monitor. The netminder did indicate recently there have been some conversations with management about an extension. "I try not to think too much about (contract talks)," he said. "The main focus has been just going day by day."
Thornton and Simmonds are the biggest names coming in up front. Brodie's addition on the back end should help solidify Toronto's top-4, while Bogosian brings more toughness. The Leafs also signed former KHL all-star Mikko Lehtonen to further bolster the blue line. Up front, Jimmy Vesey and Alexander Barabanov, another former KHLer, are two more intriguing new faces.
Toronto plays three straight in Edmonton against Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl from Feb. 27 to March 3. The Leafs close out the regular season with a trio of matchups versus Montreal in the final week, including two to wrap up the schedule at home May 7 and 8.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 12, 2021.
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