Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press
Brad Treliving wasn’t looking to change his new team’s identity.
Or it’s culture. Or it’s core of talented forwards.
Hired as general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs in May following the stunning and dramatic departure of Kyle Dubas from the same role weeks earlier, Treliving chose a different path.
“I firmly believe there’s a style that you need to play at the most important times,” he said.
“It’s as much a mentality as it is anything else.”
With that in mind — and after the Dubas dust settled — Treliving went about rejigging different aspects of a roster that finally broke through in the playoffs last spring following almost two decades of post−season misery before meekly bowing out to the Florida Panthers in a physical second−round series.
Among the additions were a trio of forwards in Tyler Bertuzzi, Max Domi and Ryan Reaves in free agency.
Bertuzzi and Domi provide skill, scoring and grit, while Reaves, with his larger−than−life personality, has carved out an enforcer role in an era where that job rarely exists.
“I know there’s been lots of talk about the abrasiveness,” Treliving continued. “These are also good players. They’re players that can play inside, they’re players that can get to areas that are hard to get to when the games matter the most.”
Treliving doesn’t want his roster, one dotted with star forwards Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander and Bertuzzi, to look too far ahead.
There’s also no denying the reason why the new faces were brought in.
“We’ve all watched games in April, May and June,” Treliving, who also kept head coach Sheldon Keefe in the fold, said of the Stanley Cup playoffs. “It didn’t change 10 years ago (and) it’s not going to change in 10 years. There’s no space. It’s a harder game. You’ve got to fight through traffic.
“The more players you can have with that mentality and that skill set, I think it helps you.”
The Maple Leafs are banking on it.
The Original Six franchise, with the NHL’s longest current title drought dating back to 1967, had lost six straight post−season series — including four Game 7s — since 2017 before getting past the Tampa Bay Lightning to open last spring’s playoffs.
That crushing weight of expectation lifted to a degree, Toronto was subsequently pushed around by the Panthers in a second−round defeat that signalled the end of the line in blue and white for Ryan O’Reilly, Michael Bunting, Noel Acciari, Luke Schenn and Justin Holl.
“Every round is different,” Matthews said. “It just keeps getting harder and harder as you continue to push.”
The star centre, who signed a four−year, US$53−million contract extension with the Leafs and Treliving in August, has been impressed with the approach of his new boss in reshaping the roster.
“His vision for the team is to get to the top of the mountain,” Matthews, a former 60−goal man and Hart Trophy winner as league MVP, said of Treliving. “That’s where all of our focus is at.
“He’s gonna do his part … it’s obviously on us to do ours.”
The hope is that Toronto, backstopped by No. 1 goaltender Ilya Samsonov, will be better prepared for whatever challenges it faces in an Atlantic Division that still includes the Lightning, Panthers and powerhouse Boston Bruins along with the up−and−coming Buffalo Sabres, Ottawa Senators and Detroit Red Wings.
“We’ve become a better team,” said Nylander, who’s club also added defenceman John Klingberg in free agency. “Hopefully that’ll help us throughout the season and in the playoffs — build off what we did last year and keep pushing forward.”
Tavares said the cast of characters might shift and change, but the goal remains the same.
“You want to lift that trophy over your head,” he said. “When I came here, I saw the potential and had the belief that it was going to be a contending team for a very, very long time.
“I still believe that for the season ahead, and for many years going forward.”
Matthew said it’s time for the Maple Leafs to take more steps in the process.
“Do whatever you can individually and as a team,” he said. “And be hungry for more.”
Treliving has been on the job just over four months. He also has no doubt about the battle−scarred core’s drive.
“It’s a serious group,” he said. “They’re very committed to their craft. They’re committed to having success … there’s a real seriousness about them.
“And I think that stems from a lot of the experiences they’ve gone through.”
BERT’S BIG CHANCE
The Maple Leafs have put Bertuzzi, who signed a one−year, $5.5−million contract in free agency, on the top line with Matthews and Marner.
“Big opportunity,” he said. “Won’t take it lightly.”
The 28−year−old was drafted by Detroit and dealt to Boston before last season’s trade deadline.
So, do Matthews and Marner remind him of anyone he’s played with previously?
“Definitely not,” he said. “Special to watch.”
The son of former Toronto fan favourite Tie Domi is already with his seventh NHL team.
And he couldn’t be happier.
“Huge honour,” Domi said of playing in the city where he grew up. “Every guy that’s new in this locker room is gonna be ready to go.”
The Maple Leafs will play regular−season games in Europe for the first time when the club heads to Sweden next month as part of a four−team showcase with the Red Wings, Minnesota Wild and Ottawa Senators.
Toronto will tangle with Detroit on Nov. 17 before facing Minnesota on Nov. 19, but Stockholm’s Avicii Arena won’t get to see a neutral site Battle of Ontario against Ottawa.
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