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Toronto Maple Leafs centre John Tavares prepares to take a faceoff against Detroit Red Wings' Frans Nielsen during the second period of a preseason game, in Toronto, on Sept. 28, 2018.Jon Blacker/The Canadian Press

Auston Matthews was asked at the start of training camp what John Tavares can expect in his first season with the Toronto Maple Leafs.

“This,” he replied, motioning to the throng of television cameras and microphones in his face. “All day.”

The Leafs shook the hockey world on July 1 when they signed Tavares to a seven-year, US$77-million contract that brought the star free-agent centre home to play for the team he cheered for as a kid.

It also brought expectations that are already nearing a fever pitch.

“He’s from Toronto, he knows,” Matthews continued. “It’s nothing he’s not really accustomed to, being from Toronto, watching the Leafs growing up and everything that comes with it.

“It’s a special place to be and he knows that.”

Tavares, who bolted the New York Islanders after nine seasons, and the Leafs will be hoping to make special memories in 2018-19 and beyond for a franchise that has failed to win a playoff round since 2004 and hasn’t made the final since last winning the Stanley Cup back in 1967.

With Tavares joining a forward group that includes a budding superstar in Matthews, Mitch Marner, Nazem Kadri, William Nylander (an unsigned restricted free agent) and Patrick Marleau, 50-plus point defencemen Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner, and goalie Frederik Andersen, the Leafs are seen as a club ready to take a massive step.

“Some people may view that or have their opinion,” Tavares said of the title predictions. “Those things, you can’t really control or worry about. You go into the every season, that’s the goal, to win the Stanley Cup. We’ll just worry about the journey.

“There’s a lot of excitement around the team. We’re looking forward to building it.”

Toronto head coach Mike Babcock said it’s also important to focus on the big picture.

“We’re set up real good here for, I don’t know, a five-, seven-year run,” said Babcock, whose team has made the playoffs the last two seasons. “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. Now, you’re always all-in on the year you’re in. But you need a run.

“Because not everything goes the way you want it to go all the time.”

Very little went right in Toronto after the 2005-06 lockout – save for one playoff appearance that ended in a crushing collapse in Game 7 of the first round against Boston in 2013 – until Brendan Shanahan took over as team president and instituted his so-called “Shanaplan” that saw the club tear things down to the studs.

Expensive veterans were sent packing, Babcock was hired, Lou Lamoriello was poached from New Jersey to be general manager, and the club bottomed out for the chance to select Matthews first overall in the 2016 NHL draft.

Kyle Dubas, an assistant under Lamoriello, was promoted to GM this spring after his boss was shuffled to an advisory role and then left for the Islanders. The first big move for Dubas was to go after Tavares, in essence accelerating the Leafs’ perceived championship timeline.

“For all of us, we want to take a step forward,” Matthews said. “All that stuff around us, is not too much of a focus. We have high expectations for ourselves and that’s a good thing.

“All of us want to be great and push each other and help achieve the ultimate goal.”


Mike Babcock, fourth season.


49-26-7, lost in seven games in the first round of the playoffs to Boston.


Auston Matthews: Set to enter his third year, he looked like a man possessed during the exhibition schedule. Matthews, 21, scored 34 goals last season despite missing 20 games because of injury and rarely seeing first-line minutes on the power play.

John Tavares: Along with Matthews and Nazem Kadri, the 28-year-old gives Toronto three 30-goal scorers at centre. His addition instantly made Toronto a Cup favourite and will present major matchup problems for opposing coaches.

Mitch Marner: The slick winger runs Toronto’s potent power play and will find himself on the Tavares line to start the season. The 21-year-old got a lot stronger this summer and will be eager to build on a red-hot second half of 2017-18 that saw him put up 17 goals and 11 assists over his final 35 games.

Frederik Andersen: The Dane set a franchise record for wins last season with 38. Andersen has started 66 times in each of his two years with Toronto, but will be hoping for a better opening month to this season after back-to-back pedestrian Octobers.


With sky-high expectations, can the Leafs live up to the hype? A talented forward group and solid goaltending are among Toronto’s strengths, but a defence corps lacking true star power remains a question mark. Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner are coming off career-high 52-point seasons, while Ron Hainsey and Nikita Zaitsev are steady. But a combination of Travis Dermott, Justin Holl, Martin Marincin and former KHLer Igor Ozhiganov will make up an relatively untested bottom pair. Also, when are William Nylander and the Leafs going to agree on a new contract, and what will it look like? Whatever happens with the current impasse will have a major impact on negotiations with Matthews and Marner, who can both become restricted free agents next summer.