Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Mitch Marner, Morgan Rielly and Frederik Andersen remain entrenched at the top of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ roster.
After that, some fans might need a program after a summer of upheaval.
The Leafs open the 2019-20 NHL season Wednesday night at home against the Ottawa Senators, with no fewer than 13 different players in the lineup from a year ago.
That number is slightly skewed because William Nylander was in the midst of a contract impasse, while Zach Hyman (knee) and Travis Dermott (shoulder) are unavailable because of injury this year, but Toronto’s turnover has still been extreme.
“We’ve got a lot of new players, lots of new guys,” Matthews said Tuesday. “We have a new look to the team, I guess you could say, but every year you come in and there’s new faces, new guys that add different things to the squad.
“Everybody’s pretty excited to finally get going.”
Many of the moves made by Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas were related to the salary cap, while others were about remaking the roster.
Gone are some of head coach Mike Babcock’s most trusted veterans such as Patrick Marleau, Ron Hainsey and Nazem Kadri. The additions include Tyson Barrie to complement Rielly on Toronto’s remade blue line that has five new faces from 12 months ago, and Alexander Kerfoot, who headlines a renovated bottom-six forward group along with Jason Spezza.
“Training camp’s been very important for us,” Babcock said. “We think we’ve really made progress. That’s easy to say right now – the measure is coming up, the real test. Our guys have worked hard, they’ve been in tune with what we’re trying to get done.”
While the focus on the ice was about more jobs than normal being up for grabs, it’s been an eventful three weeks away from the rink since the Leafs opened camp.
A restricted free agent, Marner and the club agreed to a new six-year contract worth more than US$65.3 million to settle one of the biggest question marks heading into the season.
There has been lots of chatter about when Toronto will name a new captain – that’s expected to come down some time on Wednesday – before news broke last week that Matthews, one of the team’s star centres along with Tavares, is facing a charge of disorderly conduct and disruptive behaviour stemming from an alleged May incident in his hometown of Scottsdale, Ariz.
None of the allegations have been proven in court.
“I think everyone’s just happy to be back in this locker room,” said Marner, who clicked on a line with Tavares last season. “Everyone’s happy to get this thing rolling here. We’ve got a great opportunity ahead of us. We’ve just got to make sure we come ready to work every day.”
“You’re just anxious to finally get out there,” Matthews added. “Preseason feels like it was longer than summer.”
Expectations remain high in Toronto for a team that has suffered consecutive seven-game exits in the first round of the playoffs at the hands of the Boston Bruins.
The Leafs will need Andersen to continue his steady play in goal, and hope the defence corps of Rielly, Barrie, Jake Muzzin, Cody Ceci, Martin Marincin and rookie Rasmus Sandin doesn’t take long to find its footing.
Babcock said there could be some growing pains, but pointed to the St. Louis Blues, who won the Stanley Cup in June after sitting last in the standings in January, as proof the NHL is a marathon and not a sprint.
“There’s a belief,” said the coach. “Eventually it’s got to be your time, but you’ve got to work to make it your time and you’ve got to keep growing.
“Sometimes it doesn’t show in the first 20 games, even the first 40 games. But what you just do is you stay steady on the rudder and you keep grinding and getting better each and every day.”
Tavares said he knew when he signed his seven-year, US$77-million contract with Toronto in free agency back in July 2018 there would be changes, but also that the core would remain intact.
“We’ve got some of our young players that continue to grow and get better,” he said. “And we’ve brought in some really good players, whether it’s free agency or trades, that I think give us a very deep hockey team.”
The Leafs will take on four former teammates when the Senators hit the ice at Scotiabank Arena on Wednesday – Hainsey, Connor Brown, Nikita Zaitsev and Tyler Ennis – while ex-Leafs assistant D.J. Smith is set to make his debut as an NHL bench boss with Ottawa.
“It’ll be weird,” Matthews said. “They were great teammates, great guys. A lot of us, we all still keep in touch. It’ll be a little bit weird facing off against them, but in the end you’re not going to have friends out there.
“You’ve got to go out there and win a hockey game ... you can be buddies after.”
That will be the case more than usual this season after Toronto’s summer of change.