Four months have passed since this team was embarrassed by a 42-year-old emergency rescue guard. It’s been eight months since Mike Babcock was fired as a head coach. Weekly defense injuries, the search for consistent goalkeepers, penalty shootouts… all of that is a thing of the past now.
The Leafs are days away from settling into their Toronto hub for the start of the postseason. When they arrive, they hope to carry far less baggage than they would have been if the playoffs had started in April.
“It’s a whole new start,” said forward Zach Hyman. “It’s the playoffs, but it’s unlike anything nobody has experienced. We had a layoff and now we’re back there and we’re back with the same group we had – just a healthier group. We’re excited to step into the bubble and get things done. ”
At times this season, players could have used a bubble to hide.
It was a difficult year for a Leafs team that started the year with so much promise and so much pressure. They were supposed to fight for the leader of the division in the east. They were expected to finally overcome the first round bump in the playoffs.
Instead, it was the first year of real adversity for a young team who still haven’t been able to realize their potential.
Forget Auston Matthews flirting with 50 goals or Mitch Marner making the top 20 or even William Nylander coming back and scoring more goals than Mark Scheifele and Steven Stamkos.
Individual accomplishments aside, the Leafs have underperformed. And they’ve done it on almost every front imaginable.
They have not taken the next step. They didn’t challenge Boston or Tampa Bay for the head of the division. On the contrary, they’ve spent the season battling their own inconsistency and clinging to one of the last playoff spots in the East.
If the coronavirus pandemic hadn’t put an end to it, there was a real chance the Leafs might have been passed by the Panthers in the standings and ended up missing the playoffs. The way they were playing, advancing past the Lightning in the first round seemed like a long shot.
But that was four long months ago. This was back when the Leafs didn’t know who they were or how to win games by playing the so-called ‘right way’. Maybe they still don’t know how to protect a lead or fight for pucks in the corner. Maybe the playoffs will start and nothing will have changed.
If so, changes happen in low season.
But at first glance, the team that interfered with training camp doesn’t look like the same team that couldn’t beat San Jose, Los Angeles or Anaheim on one final road trip in March.
There is a confidence that was not there in March. More than that, there is a calm in their game that just four months away from the ice could offer. No one squeezes his sticks because he can’t score. No one has to answer the same questions about the penalty or that loss against Carolina.
“It’s a breath of fresh air for sure,” head coach Sheldon Keefe said of the squad on Tuesday. “But we also recognize that we can’t forget what we’ve been through, those adversities, the challenges and the areas in which we need to grow as a team. It is important that we stay connected to this. Mentally, we have seen it.
Something happened while the Leafs were away. The players had time to rest and escape. But they had time to think about how much went wrong in a season that no one was happy with. As Leafs captain John Tavares said on Tuesday, there’s always a “taste in your mouth of where we’re at.”
In other words, Tavares realizes that more is expected from a team that has three of the highest paid players in the league. He also realizes the Leafs have a chance to rewrite the season that four months ago seemed over.
“I think there is a lot of unfinished business from last season,” said captain John Tavares. “We wanted to finish this. So I still think there’s that hunger and that desire to finish all the work and challenges we’ve been facing so far in the season, even with such a long break.
“At the same time, (the break) gives you this unique opportunity to reflect and look back and have really lots of time to really refocus, reset and prepare for what we want to be a really special race. So it’s unique that way.
It better be a long term. Otherwise, the Leafs could return with even more baggage than they arrived.