TORONTO — If you saw Jake Muzzin’s bushy brown beard, and heard many of the questions lobbed at the Toronto Maple Leafs on Wednesday morning, you could’ve easily mistaken this team for one in the midst of a playoff run.
As last season’s 60-goal scorer, Auston Matthews, put it: “Everybody, it’s on their mind: Playoffs, playoffs.”
For anyone keeping count: That stage of the 2022-23 NHL season is still more than 200 days away.
“I understand what it is, all that kind of talk and stuff, and rightly so,” Matthews, last season’s Hart Trophy winner, added, “but at the same time, we can’t fast-forward to the future.”
No we can’t, but nevertheless, post-season success was a focus of conversation at Toronto’s media day at the Ford Performance Centre on Wednesday, the last day before training camp opens. It was the expected chatter around a team that’s much the same as it was last year, a team that set franchise records for wins and points earned in the regular season, but once again exited the playoffs in the first round, losing in seven games to the defending two-time Stanley Cup champions from Tampa Bay.
Mitch Marner was seven years old the last time this franchise won a playoff series, back in 2004. He’s from the Toronto area, and he gets all the anticipation, but he tried to keep the focus on the days and weeks ahead. “I’m sure you’re gonna be hearing lots of it, but from me especially,” Marner said, “you gotta take it day by day.”
On Thursday, the Leafs are set to open training camp with two new goalies, in Matt Murray and Ilya Samsonov, and a few roster spots up for grabs, but with a core they’ve kept around to try to make a real run.
“With regards to the season ahead, we’re extremely excited,” GM Kyle Dubas said, sporting a blue team zip-up and seated at a conference table in a room that had the feel and cozy pleather seats of a VIP movie theatre. Meanwhile, Leafs players were on the ice doing photo and video shoots.
“It’s another chance for us to change the story,” Dubas added. “I know that nobody wants to hear what we have to say, they want to see what we do – to see action. And I know that a lot of people will want to say that that is going to have to come in the playoffs, which obviously we agree. We need to be better. We need to win come that time, we’re capable of doing so.”
Dubas is in the last season of a five-year contract as this team’s general manager, and there were many questions about that, too, which he says he’ll address at the end of the season. He noted he “won’t let it be a distraction.” This team is built on accountability, Dubas added, and “I believe I have to be held the most accountable.”
The most accountable guy laid on the table what the goal is for this season, and it’s not just to make it past the first round.
“Our goal is to win the Stanley Cup,” Dubas said. “So that’s what we’ve set our mind on today, and there’s no thought amongst anyone that works in this facility about anything less than that, and what the repercussions are going to be or not be.”
That goal is of course front of mind for every member of this organization. “This is what makes it great, is the process and the journey here,” said captain John Tavares. “Hopefully we have a chance to break through.”
“We’ve proven over the last couple of years that we can go on good runs and play really good hockey over a period of time and compete with the best teams in the league,” added defender Morgan Rielly. “We’ve done that during the regular season for long stretches of time; we haven’t been able to do that in the playoffs for long stretches of time. So it’s on us to get to that point.”
Rielly says over the summer he was able to stop thinking about the disappointment of last season on a daily basis, but that it comes back now and again. “I think once you get back into the rink and back around your teammates and your friends and the guys, you kind of face it again and start talking about it,” he said. “It kind of comes and goes over the course of the season, and on a day like today you’re met with a couple questions, and then you’re thinking about it again.”
For Muzzin, there’s comfort in having this core group together still, after that disappointment a season ago. “When there’s familiar faces and you went through the struggle together, it motivates you and your group to come out on the other end as well,” he said. “We know we have a good team, we have a good opportunity, and for me personally, you don’t get that all the time.”
The buildup to the season ahead all starts in earnest tomorrow, at Day 1 of training camp. But this team knows it’ll be judged on what happens more than 200 days from now.
As Muzzin put it: “It’s time to push hard and to get over the hump.”
Frankie Lasagna misses Aaron Judge's 61st home run ball | CTV News – CTV News Toronto
Blue Jays fan Frankie Lasagna grabbed a baseball glove from his garage before heading down to Rogers Centre for Wednesday’s game against the New York Yankees.
With Aaron Judge on the verge of baseball history, Lasagna wanted to be prepared just in case the Yankees slugger hit his 61st homer of the season.
“I would never ever bring a glove other than this situation,” Lasagna said. “I needed a bigger one.”
The 37-year-old Toronto restaurant owner came agonizingly close to catching the historic ball when Judge went deep in the seventh inning.
Lasagna stretched over the railing but the ball hit the wall just a few feet below and bounced into the Toronto bullpen. A Yankees security official later came by to collect it.
The blast tied Judge with Roger Maris, who set the American League’s single-season home run record in 1961.
Lasagna bought his ticket in the front row of the 100 level thinking it would improve his odds of catching the ball if Judge went deep.
“In the front row I felt like you’ve got the best chance,” he said. “Lo and behold, I was just a few feet away.”
Lasagna said the anticipation built during every Judge at-bat.
“It’s like you’re in the game, you’re fielding and getting ready for the pitch,” he said. “When he hit the ball, it was like ‘Oh my God! Oh my God!’ I think I hit my buddy in his neck (as I stretched out). I almost got it.”
Lasagna could only look down into the bullpen as the ball – which could have been worth big bucks to a collector – bounced a couple times before it was picked up.
“The disbelief comes over you and just the shock and the amazement,” he said. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, I almost had it.”’
One fan seated near Lasagna, still clearly frustrated at just missing the ball, declined to be interviewed.
Lasagna, sporting a baby blue Vladimir Guerrero Jr., jersey, said he would have kept the ball if he had caught it.
“I would have held on to it for as long as I could (to) negotiate,” he said. “Maybe get Judge to try to come to the restaurant.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 28, 2022.
Jets veterans respond after Bowness openly challenges them in two key areas – Sportsnet.ca
WINNIPEG — Mark Scheifele didn’t attempt to stickhandle around the pointed question, nor did he get bent out of shape over a comment from head coach Rick Bowness sent in the general direction of him and his linemates, Nikolaj Ehlers and Kyle Connor.
The Winnipeg Jets centre casually explained his position on the matter, confessed he is among the players who needs to pay attention to his shift length and later delivered a sound byte that should answer any lingering questions about his frame of mind going into what could be a defining season for both Scheifele and this core group.
“I’m definitely a guy that extends a little bit,” said Scheifele. “Being a higher-end player, being in the top-six, I think it comes with the territory. But it’s something that we all have to work on. The older guys, the veterans, have to lead in that sense. That’s something all of us have to take pride in.”
Sure, it’s still early in training camp and this group is very much in the getting-to-know-the-new-bench-boss stages, so it’s natural that some eyebrows were raised when Bowness openly challenged his veterans to lead the way and clean up two critical areas that caught his attention in Tuesday’s 5-3 victory over the Ottawa Senators: shift length and turnovers.
Scheifele (65 seconds), Connor (65 seconds) and Ehlers (63 seconds) were the only three members of the Jets to average more than one minute per shift (though that included time on the power play which skewed the numbers slightly).
After gushing with praise about Bowness in multiple interviews since he was hired, plenty of folks on social media were wondering how Scheifele was going to respond to the first open show of criticism that was sent his way.
If you thought Scheifele was going to show frustration or threaten to take his puck and go home (figuratively speaking), you were sorely mistaken.
“Well, I don’t think he’s sending a message through you guys,” said Scheifele. “(Bowness) has been an awesome communicator. I think that’s something that we all really respect from him, is everything comes from him, everything comes from his mouth. He’s talking to us each and every day about everything he wants to see and wants to change and what he wants to focus on each and every day, and that’s a huge positive.
“He’s really up front and honest, tells you what’s on his mind. He wants you to tell him what’s on your mind, as well. That’s something I really appreciate and something that’s going to be very different, for sure. But something I think everyone likes. And like I said, it’s all a process. We’re all getting to know each other, each other’s tendencies and it’s been a good start.”
It’s natural to wonder if a mostly fresh set of eyes with the reconfigured coaching staff could be a benefit for Scheifele and company.
Folks from outside the organization like Bowness, associate coach Scott Arniel and assistant coach Brad Lauer have been watching Scheifele from afar for years and may have some different thoughts about things that might help take his game to another level.
Scheifele isn’t in the business of only wanting to be told what things he’s great at — he’s already got a great awareness of his strengths — he’s open to constructive criticism as well.
That’s an important part of trying to improve.
“I think that’s what coaching is. I believe that’s the definition. That’s what coaches are supposed to do,” said Scheifele. “They want to help you with your game, and that’s what’s really exciting for us players, is you have a new set of eyes giving you their thoughts on your game and what you can improve on and what they see and what you see.
“We all want to feel that they’re helping us and giving us the best chance to succeed. And it’s been a great start to training camp with that so far, and we’re all excited to keep that going.”
This was another example of genuine enthusiasm from Scheifele, who is in position to be a driving force this season.
Members of the media and fans alike have been programmed to believe that the modern player might not appreciate their faults discussed in a public forum, so criticism — even if constructive — isn’t frequently offered in the question-and-answer setting.
But in his first training camps with the 2.0 version of the Jets, Bowness has already shown that he’s going to operate in a way he feels comfortable.
In short, honesty is the best policy.
This isn’t about airing out players publicly or sending a message through the media.
Sure, it might work in an isolated situation, but that old-school approach is well past its best-before date as a way to try and provide a spark for a struggling player.
“I don’t do that. The players will always hear it from me first. They’re not going to read anything they haven’t heard, so there’s no surprises,” said Bowness. “I don’t see anything wrong with it. The players have heard it first. We talk about those things. If you’re watching the game, some of those things should be pretty evident to you. What am I supposed to do, pretend it’s not happening? I’m going to tell you what I see happening.
“The players will hear it first, but I’m not going to pretend it’s not going on. The most important thing is it’ll be addressed with the players first. If you’re watching the games you’ll come to your own conclusions. Some nights you’ll disagree with me. That’s fine, too.”
For Bowness, this is about establishing a new baseline — one that each and every player will be held to — and promoting good habits.
The coaching staff will be tasked with holding those players accountable, but the players will also be doing plenty of self-policing on that front as well.
“(Bowness) said it the first day. On bad teams, no one leads. Good teams, the coaches lead. Great teams, the players lead,” said Jets defenceman Nate Schmidt. “You have to have guys that drive the bus in the room and set the standard for each other. You telling me what the standard is might be different from what we talk about the standard is, versus what you guys talk about the standard is.
“So if you have everybody that believes in the same one, especially from the players’ side, then you’re going to have a lot of success.”
Sharpening up the shift length was a message that was clearly received.
“You don’t win by taking 50-plus-second shifts. You go back and look at the best playoff teams and you’re buzzin’ for 40, 42,” said Jets winger Mason Appleton. “If you get caught out there for a minute, odds are you weren’t working as hard as you could for the full minute, otherwise you wouldn’t be on the ice still. So I think that’s something that needs to continue to get better.
“Not pointing fingers. I think there’s times when I’m stuck on the ice too long, too. That’s a committee thing, and it’s just a mindset of going out there for 40 seconds and I’m going to work as hard as I can, and when the time’s right, I’m getting off the ice.”
It’s one thing to show support for a new coach before the puck has dropped on opening night of the regular season and another to do it over a longer length of time.
How this group responds to adversity when it arrives during the regular season will ultimately determine whether Bowness’ approach is successful.
What was easy to decipher on Wednesday afternoon is that Scheifele wants to be coached and to be pushed and that’s something that will bring a smile to the face of Bowness.
For a team that is going to require a full commitment and buy-in to implement the more aggressive style Bowness wants the Jets to play, having Scheifele on board is essential.
When members of the leadership group are fully invested, it’s nearly impossible for the rest of the team not to follow suit.
Rasmus Sandin wise to end stalemate and rush to Maple Leafs camp – Sportsnet.ca
TORONTO — This was never about money only.
Opportunity and ice time were always intertwined in Rasmus Sandin’s prolonged contractual stalemate with the Toronto Maple Leafs, which mercifully ended Thursday morning with a two-year, $2.8-million bridge deal, signed eight days after training camp’s opening.
“This morning, Rasmus Sandin and (agent) Lewis Gross reached out to us and informed us that after watching our game last night and seeing more injuries accrued by our defence, that they wanted to get this locked in today so Rasmus could get over to Toronto and help his teammates,” GM Kyle Dubas said in a statement. “We appreciate Rasmus and his camp taking that step today to get this contract done and allow him the time to ready for the final preseason games.
“As stated throughout this process, Rasmus is a key member of the present and future of (our) team, and we are excited today that he is en route to Toronto to ready for Opening Night in Montreal.”
The subtext here: Sandin blinked first.
And that’s OK.
The defenceman accepted a bridge contract similar to one tabled months ago, for the same term and total dollars as friend and fellow RFA Timothy Liljegren. He won’t miss a paycheque.
The deal is fair market value for both sides. No one “won” the dispute, and if there is any loss it may be Sandin’s fitness needing to play catchup — but let’s see how he looks on the ice before ruling.
If Dubas made any concession in the deal, it’s that the final season of Sandin’s agreement carries a salary of $1.6 million, meaning he’ll receive a richer qualifying offer as an RFA upon the conclusion of the 2023-24 season.
Ultimately, flying Sandin from Sweden to Toronto — he’ll make the journey Friday — is in the best interest of all involved.
From the club’s perspective, NHL-calibre defencemen were getting scarce fast. Veteran Jake Muzzin (back) has yet to participate in a full team practice. Liljegren (hernia) is still a minimum of five weeks away from seeing action.
And next-men-up Jordie Benn (groin) and Carl Dahlstrom (shoulder) both suffered significant injuries in Wednesday’s pre-season action, further clearing a path for Sandin to seize not only a regular role but make a case for the top four.
Continuing to sit at home and ask for money the cap-strapped organization doesn’t have to give (without making a trade) would have hardly served the 22-year-old well.
With only 88 NHL games on his resume, the 2018 first-round pick needs to see action for his own sake.
“It goes without saying,” coach Sheldon Keefe said this week, that there are prime shifts just waiting for Sandin as soon as he signs.
Once Sandin is up to speed, it will relieve pressure on the Leafs to rush Muzzin or Liljegren back from recovery.
More important, a strong showing by the confident left shot could set him up for the payday and security he really desires by 2024.
The lone Maple Leafs defenceman signed beyond that summer is Morgan Rielly.
That means a top-four role — and top-four salary — is dangling like a carrot in the distance. The onus falls on Sandin to go out and snatch it.
With Sandin’s business tidied up, the Maple Leafs currently stand $2.9 million over the salary ceiling, per CapFriendly.com.
To become cap compliant — and sign PTO Zach Aston-Reese as hoped — Dubas must shed salary via LTIR and/or the waiver wire prior to Opening Night.
Provided Muzzin’s recovery from back pain goes smoothly, the Maple Leafs’ blue line should look something like this when their season opens on Oct. 12 at Bell Centre:
Morgan Rielly – T.J. Brodie
Jake Muzzin – Justin Holl
Rasmus Sandin – Mark Giordano
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