Pressure a shared experience as Maple Leafs embark on most important season in some time

It is a historic night in Toronto.

Arguably the greatest Toronto Maple Leafs team of a generation — or, many generations — will start into their quest to seize a legitimate, yet in some ways fleeting opportunity.

While it presents itself as the Maple Leafs’ best chance to embark on a long and meaningful run in the postseason, the pressure on the organization has with it reached an all-time level as well. Against the backdrop of previous and premature failures, and with the threat of more undeniable change coming next season, there isn’t a defense that can be manufactured to excuse an inability to show progression.

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Losers in the first round for three consecutive seasons, and with the last two coming at the hands of the divisional rival Boston Bruins, failure to make the second round for the first time under Mike Babcock will surely come with consequences for the veteran head coach, who carries with him probably the largest profile at his position in the sport.

But pressure will be a shared experience for the Maple Leafs as they navigate their regular season schedule and position themselves for another postseason run after a summer of change and reconfigured responsibilities.

General manager Kyle Dubas had to work tirelessly, pursuing every possible loophole hidden with the NHL’s salary parameters, to absorb those changes. By and large, anyone that was not progressing in line with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner was sacrificed so that the organization could host the salaries that the two superstars commanded while exiting entry level.

Babcock-favourite Patrick Marleau was packaged away with a first-round draft pick, Nazem Kadri was dealt to the Colorado Avalanche, and a fleet of former Leafs now play for former assistant coach D.J. Smith in Ottawa as the Leafs overhauled their salary structure.

But incredibly, despite those changes Dubas expertly managed to introduce a net positive in terms of talent.

A premier offensive defenseman in Tyson Barrie came over in the Kadri deal at a slashed cap hit, while Dubas unearthed a handful of capable players — be it from its talented prospect base, overseas, or through the veteran free agent market — to raise the talent level on the roster. Belief is that players like Rasmus Sandin, Ilya Mikheyev and Jason Spezza (even if he didn’t crack the opening night roster) can offer more than players pinched from the organization like Marleau, Connor Brown and Jake Gardiner, but at a fraction of the price.

Still with Zach Hyman and Travis Dermott beginning the season on the injured list, the Leafs will almost inexplicably only return seven players from their opening-night roster from a season ago. That much change will bring challenges, and for everything that he’s done to improve the roster despite the Matthews-Marner footprint, Dubas’s decision will be firmly set under the microscope all season.

For their part in complicating the salary dynamics in Toronto, Matthews and Marner themselves should feel that heat. To the extent that William Nylander’s mind might be comparatively at ease.

Marner has been the mark of consistency over the last two seasons, leading the club in scoring in each and helping incoming perennial All-Star John Tavares deliver his best season to date. Should he continue to be the offensive wizard he has been for the last two seasons, in time he will justify earning an eight-figure salary.

This is the biggest season in some time for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
This is the biggest season in some time for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Matthews, however, still has something to prove on the ice, and off of it when considering the legal troubles he’s recently found himself in.

While he is probably the most gifted goal scorer in the organization’s history, he has yet to deliver a complete offensive season worthy of an $11-million-plus salary, having missed 34 games over the last two seasons combined. Though it is in some respects out of his control, Matthews has to stay healthy to reach his on-ice potential and for the Leafs to be at their best.

What Matthews did prove last season is that he could rise to the occasion in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Scoring five times in seven games and leading the club in scoring with six points, Matthews was the factor he failed to be in the loss to Boston one year prior.

As much attention as every little detail will receive throughout the regular season, the Leafs will gladly deal with some growing pains to have the important players on the roster take a Matthews-sized step come the postseason.

A breakthrough this spring, when it matters most, is the only thing that will prevent team president Brendan Shanahan from using one of the bullets he has to this point preserved.

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