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Maple Leafs declare an end to the rebuild and begin a new phase – and expectations couldn’t be higher

John Tavares holds up a jersey bearing his name in the Toronto Maple Leafs' locker room following a news conference in Toronto, on July 1, 2018.

Chris Young/The Canadian Press

All summer, the sports-radio machine talked about how the Toronto Maple Leafs could win the Stanley Cup. Then some of the major oddsmakers said the Maple Leafs are the favourites to win the Stanley Cup. Last week, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Patrick Kane and Tyler Seguin all made the Leafs their choice to win the Cup outside of their own teams.

Pretty heady stuff for a city that last held a Stanley Cup parade in 1967, even if the talented group of youngsters has been the favourite team-on-the-rise of NHL observers for a couple of years.

What was interesting, though, on the Maple Leafs’ first day of training camp for the 2018-19 season, is management appears to have elbowed its way onto the bandwagon, too. Neither rookie general manager Kyle Dubas nor head coach Mike Babcock were reckless enough to identify their team as the favourite to win the NHL championship, but both made it clear the Leafs are finished with the rebuilding stage of the Brendan Shanahan era.

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When Shanahan was hired as team president in 2014 and then implemented the “Shanaplan” rebuild in early 2015, after almost a year of studying the operation, the watch word was pain. He promised it when the plan to tear the team down to its foundations was made public, and both Lou Lamoriello and Babcock repeated it when they came aboard three years ago.

“There’s pain coming,” Babcock said at the news conference to announce his signing. Of course, the coach had that eight-year, US$50-million contract to ease his own discomfort. On Thursday, Babcock declared the Leafs were now at the start of the next era, one like his former team enjoyed from about 2006 through 2011 when the Detroit Red Wings routinely finished first or second over all in the regular season, won a Cup in 2008 and were the Western Conference champions in 2009.

“We’re excited. I feel like it’s my first year,” Babcock said. “Now you coach the team. Before, you’re just trying to get the team to a certain level. This is kind of like the Red Wings all over again. Now we have an opportunity.”

The opportunity came in the guise of centre John Tavares. There were some people who thought the Leafs might have paused in their rebuild when Shanahan pushed Lamoriello out of the general manager’s chair and turned the job over to 32-year-old rookie Dubas. But they were gobsmacked when the kid swiped Tavares out from under Lamoriello, who decamped for the Islanders when the Leafs turned him out to pasture.

Toronto Maple Leafs forward Mitch Marner says it’s important not to “get ahead” of themselves as some peg the Leafs as Stanley Cup favourites. The Leafs opened training camp on Thursday. The Canadian Press

While he was at it, Dubas also did away with some of Lamoriello’s famous rules, too. This means there will be facial hair, although Mitch Marner, who at 21 could still get a child’s ticket at the movies, doesn’t think he will take advantage: “I mean, if Just For Men works really well then I guess so.”

Now the Leafs can roll the best set of centres in the league on opponents: Tavares, Auston Matthews and Nazem Kadri. As with any team in a salary-cap league, the Leafs have holes. There were no major moves on defence, so holdovers Connor Carrick, Justin Holl, Andreas Borgman and Calle Rosen, plus newcomer Igor Ozhiganov, will compete for the sixth and seventh spots.

Up front, James van Riemsdyk’s 36 goals will be missed, but with Marner flying with Tavares and speedsters Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson both slotted for more prominent roles, this should not be a problem. Yes, Matthews’s wing man, William Nylander, is not in camp because of contract negotiations, but this is a ways from crisis level.

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The most important fight for a job might be at backup goaltender. Frederik Andersen’s play suffered at times under a 66-game workload, which did not help in the first-round playoff loss to the Boston Bruins. While veteran Curtis McElhinney posted a gaudy .934 save percentage in 18 games as the backup last season, Babcock does not appear comfortable playing him more than that. So the job might go to farmhand Garret Sparks, 25, who was the goalie-of-the-year in the AHL last season.

Babcock brushed aside questions about the defence, citing the 52-point seasons in 2017-18 from both Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner. “I think the group is real good, a lot better than a lot of people think. We’ve got two 50-point D-men. I don’t know how many teams in the league have two 50-point D-men. We believe we can get way better defensively,” he said.

The important part is Babcock’s belief that the team is “set up real good here for, I don’t know, a five-, seven-year run. Anybody who’s been around winning in the National Hockey League knows you need a run. It’s not about one year. It’s about a run.”

This was the point of blowing the whole thing up in 2015, fielding a substandard team in order to get that first overall pick in the 2016 entry draft to get Matthews and assemble and develop a bumper crop of young talent on the Toronto Marlies. If the past two years of the Leafs finding their legs and finally making the playoffs after a decade in the wilderness were a relief for Leaf fans, then the real excitement is about to begin.

But only if, as both Babcock and Dubas said, the Leafs stay the course on the development plan. And if – perhaps the biggest if – the team does not wilt under all of the expectations.

“I think that 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,” Dubas said. “I think relative to our players, they’ve earned the respect of their peers through their performance to date, and I think with [Tavares] coming is the thing that moved our team into the upper echelon.

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“We want to build this and continue to abide by our process. It’s nice to hear that, it’s nice to have those things said about you, but we still have a lot to prove as a group. We haven’t won a playoff series yet, so we have to start by focusing on that today and tomorrow and giving ourselves the most chance we can year-in and year-out.”

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