TORONTO — Playoffs? The Toronto Maple Leafs just want to win some games.
A year ago, the Maple Leafs entered another season under Randy Carlyle with expectations to return to the post-season. In their first under new coach Mike Babcock, the realistic expectation is even lower.
“We want to make the playoffs just as every team does, but that’s really not being seen as a goal for us, I guess, in a sense,” forward Daniel Winnik said. “I think as players we look to compete every night and get wins when we can.”
While the Montreal Canadiens are talking about trying to contend for the Stanley Cup after three straight playoff appearances, the Leafs are setting less tangible goals for themselves. Babcock expects to win Wednesday night’s season opener against the Canadiens at Air Canada Centre, but more than anything else he wants his team to continue to get better over next few weeks and months,
“We’re going to get so that we’re organized and we’re going to get so that we’re very hard-working and that we’re in it together night in and night out and we’re going to be a hard group to play against,” Babcock said. “How long’s that going to take? I don’t know the answer to that question.”
The Canadiens have far more stability in place, with Hart and Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender Carey Price, 2013 Norris Trophy-winning defenceman P.K. Subban and new captain Max Pacioretty leading the way. They added wingers Alexander Semin and Tomas Fleischmann but kept most of the same core in place.
Subban said players need to bring “championship performances” every night and alluded to that being the goal for the season.
“I don’t think it’s just good enough to make the playoffs in here,” Subban said. “We’ve been to the Eastern Conference finals since I’ve been here twice, and we’ve gone on some pretty long playoff runs. It’s about making that next step.”
Subban said the Habs were “anxious” to take that step. Price added that “there’s a lot of, obviously, expectations, and we’re excited to try to meet them.”
Expectations for the Leafs are down substantially. Two years ago, fresh off their first playoff appearance since 2004, the talk was similar to the present in Montreal about taking the next step and building off making it.
After two mid-season meltdowns that led to wholesale organizational changes, the Leafs are like the Drake song “Started From the Bottom,” except they’re there now.
“We’re at where we’re at, and we’re going to take it and build it from what we’ve got here,” captain Dion Phaneuf said. “If you look halfway down the road and halfway down the season, I don’t think that’s fair to anyone. We’ve started things over here, and we’re going to build it from right now on out.”
With the potential for as many as nine new players on this opening night lineup compared to a year ago, there are plenty of unknowns for the Leafs. Babcock said he’ll know a lot more about his team after the first three games: the opener against the Canadiens, at the Detroit Red Wings on Friday and home against the Ottawa Senators on Saturday.
It’ll take much longer than that to know exactly what the Leafs are without recently traded scoring star Phil Kessel but with players like Pierre-Alexandre Parenteau, Shawn Matthias and Matt Hunwick added to the mix. Joffrey Lupul said the Leafs could surprise some people but understands making the playoffs might be a lofty expectation.
“If you go to any locker room in the league, they’re going to say, ‘We want to be a playoff team,’ so I can say that,’ Lupul said. “But I think we have some work to do before we get to that level.”
Phaneuf said practice habits have improved, which is a step toward success. Lupul said the Leafs have all the tools they need to win games and will on occasion play Babcock’s system to perfection, though the goal is to eventually do it every game.
“It’s going to take us a while,” Lupul said. “I think everything here’s a work in progress right now.”
Follow @SWhyno on Twitter
Stephen Whyno, The Canadian Press