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Leafs netminder Jonathan Bernier says that new coach Mike Babcock is asking the team to be ‘accountable.’

Claus Andersen/Getty Images

They finished in the league's basement, losing 80 per cent of their games over the final few months of the year.

Their top scorer was traded away for prospects and a pick in July.

And the incoming head coach has promised – repeatedly – that there will be plenty of "pain" as the players embark on a dramatic ground-up rebuild that, off the ice, began over the summer.

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So members of the 2015-16 Toronto Maple Leafs aren't likely to have many victories to celebrate. The season ahead is instead expected to be a long, hard slog – a loss-filled journey that many on the roster won't survive. And that's a difficult reality for these players to escape.

But they're trying.

"Expectations are, you know, who knows?" said centre Nick Spaling, the only veteran the Leafs received from Pittsburgh in the Phil Kessel trade. "We've got a lot of young guys, a lot of guys who have a lot of good years left and things to prove. That's a dangerous team to be playing against. It's going to be a lot of fun for guys to develop this year."

"I'm excited to be part of it," added Jonathan Bernier, explaining how he had been through similar pain in his time with the Kings, who finished second last in 2007-08 – the year he got his initial taste of playing in the NHL – before going on to win the Stanley Cup four years later. "It's a great challenge. You grow as a group. There are going to be ups and downs, but to live that as one group … it's the best thing."

This year's Maple Leafs gathered for the first time as a full team at RattleSnake Point Golf Club in Milton, Ont., on Monday, part of an annual charity event that typically includes a lament about the unfortunate "near miss" the year before.

This time, however, there wasn't a single reference to last season and how close they had come. How could there be? It was a year that ended in a smouldering crater, with 40 losses in their final 51 games, and with the organization firing the coaches, the general manager and almost the entire scouting staff.

Instead, almost all of the players' optimism as they came off the course was focused in one direction: Mike Babcock.

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By all accounts, the new head coach has been everywhere in the Leafs organization this off-season, putting in 16-hour days and beginning to establish a relationship with his players. Part of what Babcock is attempting to do is instill belief in this motley crew, exorcising whatever demons remain from a year ago and preaching a hard-work approach regardless of what the cynics are saying.

The decorated former Red Wings coach has a saying that "players don't rebuild," which means that, despite the obvious emphasis the organization has put on youth and building through the draft, he wants the current players to stay focused on their jobs.

So he's urging them to try to win games when the puck drops in three weeks.

"He's going to keep us honest," netminder James Reimer said.

"That's what Mike's asking out of us," Bernier said. "Be accountable. The whole team's got to be accountable to each other."

That may sound disastrous to the tankists – those in the fan base who want the Leafs to implode again and get another high draft pick in 2016. But this is really the only road Babcock can go down. At least some of these players are expected to be part of the Leafs' rebirth, and team officials want the players' dispositions to shift long before then.

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Even if they're lacking talent, they want a team that cares.

"That's what we have to bring the players – we have to bring them confidence," new GM Lou Lamoriello said. "They have to believe in what we're doing, and that there are reasons for it."

Confidence in the face of what, competitively, is impending doom, at least in the near term. It doesn't feel like an easy sell – even coming from certified winners such as Babcock and Lamoriello – but these are the preseason days when optimism reigns around the league.

It'll get harder to stay confident when the losses start to come.

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