The Toronto Maple Leafs concluded their last few days of training camp in Ontario’s cottage country. Although their calendar was kept under wraps and movements tightly controlled, there was no way for them to pop into the Muskoka region without notice.
As the Leafs peeped at fall leaves, residents peeped at the Leafs. They gawked at their bus and a small flotilla followed them during a boat cruise on Lake Muskoka. Kids waited for hours outside the community rink in Gravenhurst, Ont., hoping to glimpse one of their hockey heroes after practice.
“Can I have your autograph?” one youngster shouted at Ondrej Kase, a forward from the Czech Republic who joined Toronto as a free agent during the offseason. Then, as Kase scribbled his signature, the boy just as enthusiastically inquired, “Which one of them are you?”
At one time, teams regularly took these short jaunts as a bonding exercise. The Edmonton Oilers used to go to Jasper, Alta., to ride bicycles together and enjoy mountain activities. The camaraderie is especially important for a fellow such as Kase, who has spent five years in the NHL but has had little opportunity to get to know his new teammates beyond a bit of sightseeing and a round of golf at Muskoka Lakes.
“This serves a lot of value,” Jason Spezza said Friday, after Toronto took part in its final full practice of the preseason. “It breaks up the monotony of training camp and gives us a little jump in our step.”
It is also a cleansing opportunity, and there are no two teams in the league that need to exorcise demons more than the Maple Leafs and the Oilers.
Fans looked forward to a second-round matchup between them last year, but both lost spectacularly in the first round. Connor McDavid and Edmonton were swept in four games by the Winnipeg Jets. Auston Matthews and Toronto did the near impossible, coughing up a 3-1 series lead to the Montreal Canadiens.
“It was tough to go into the offseason after a loss like we had,” said Spezza, who at 38 is about to embark on his 19th NHL season. “When you lose that early, it makes for a long summer and a long grind.
“It definitely stung, but it created a lot of motivation for us. You know you don’t want to be cut short like that the next time.”
All that lies between the Maple Leafs and their season-opener on Wednesday against Montreal is an exhibition game on Saturday with the Ottawa Senators at Scotiabank Arena. Toronto has added depth and played well during the preseason.
“Every practice has been up-paced and we have kept each other going,” Mitch Marner said Friday. He plays Robin to Matthews’s Batman. “We are all happy where we are right now. We are getting dialled in and ready to go.”
In McDavid, the Oilers field the game’s biggest superstar, and along with him have another former MVP in Leon Draisaitl. They shored up their defence in the offseason by signing veteran Duncan Keith and the steady Cody Ceci. They also added Zach Hyman, Warren Foegele and Derek Ryan to an already explosive offence.
Their biggest question mark remains at goalkeeper. For now, Edmonton will stick with the 39-year-old Mike Smith, who was exceptional last year, and the somewhat erratic Mikko Koskinen.
There is a lot at stake; Edmonton has only reached the playoffs twice in the past 15 years.
“We went into last year’s playoff series against Winnipeg planning to go on a long run,” said Ken Holland, the Oilers general manager. “To not even win a game was very disappointing.
“In pro hockey there are no moral victories. We got swept and it really hurt.”
Holland, who has spent nearly a quarter of a century as a GM, recalls bitter losses in Detroit before teams he put together went on to win three Stanley Cups.
“As a general manager I’ve been nervous going into every season for 25 years,” Holland said. “You feel good about the offseason but are anxious to play the first 10 to 20 games to see where you fit. You have to stick with it and make some tweaks.
“It’s a league where you never feel comfortable. I know how hard it is to win. There are always questions until you do. Now we get an opportunity to answer them over 82 games.”
Bob Nicholson, who serves as chief executive officer of the Oiler Entertainment Group and oversees all hockey operations, said he realizes the team’s fans are beginning to lose their patience.
“There is pressure on us to do better,” Nicholson said. “We have brought in more skill, more speed up front and have much more depth. It gives us a chance to be competitive. We are excited to get started.”
Toronto added Kase, Nick Ritchie, a big left winger, centre David Kampf, forward Michael Bunting and goalie Petr Mrazek to an already impressive lineup. Ritchie and Bunting have had especially good training camps, while Mrazek will split time with incumbent starter Jack Campbell.
The latter won the starting job last season over Frederik Andersen, who has moved on to Carolina. Campbell went 17-3-2 during the regular season with a .921 save percentage.
The Maple Leafs last won a playoff series in 2004 and have not won a Stanley Cup since 1967. That is 18 years before their general manager, Kyle Dubas, was born. They easily won the all-Canadian North Division last year before imploding during the postseason.
“We can’t hide from that or run from it,” Dubas said at the start of training camp. He took in practices in Gravenhurst over the past two days from a perch high in the Centennial Arena. “As an organization, we just have to be as ready as possible when those moments come again.
“Our focus has to be on the future. In the division we are in, if we aren’t dialled in every day, we are going to put ourselves in a tough spot. We can’t be distracted by trying to redeem ourselves for the past.”
Toronto returns to the Atlantic Division and is sure to get push-back from the Lightning, which won the past two Stanley Cups, the resurgent Panthers and Bruins. Always the Bruins. That is enough to keep players’ minds on the present.
“We don’t carry the burden of 54 years or whatever it is,” Dubas said. “The guys in our dressing room weren’t alive then. I don’t think that resonates with them. What I’ve learned about this group over the last 3 1/2 years is that rather than proving that other stuff wrong, they care tremendously about proving themselves, and what they are about, right.”
Toronto head coach Sheldon Keefe is pleased with the team’s progress during training camp and was glad the players could get away from Toronto for a few days. This was the first full preseason for Keefe, who signed a contract extension recently through 2023-24, after two COVID-interrupted campaigns.
“Our focus last season was to set the standard, change our work habits, pay more attention to detail and be more competitive,” Keefe said. “We made great strides there, but it wasn’t enough. Now our goal is to raise the standard because we clearly have to get to another level.”