There's really not much to talk about when it comes to the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Yeah, that statement couldn't be further from the truth. The organization has gone through a complete revitalization in an attempt to return the storied franchise to prominence. In truth, no one is expecting much from the Maple Leafs again this season, and that's exactly how the team wants it.
"People probably won't be picking us to do much this year, but as a player, you focus on what you can control and you want to be as successful of a player as you can be, and as successful of a team as you can be, so that's not going to change. We're going to try to win as many games as we can and go from there," said forward James van Riemsdyk.
It's hard to look at the future of the Maple Leafs without focusing on the past. Who knows what this organization would look like had the Maple Leafs eliminated the Boston Bruins in the first round of the 2013 Stanley Cup playoffs. Toronto was 10 minutes away from winning that series in seven games, before the Bruins produced a historic come-from-behind victory.
A new era begins this season for the Maple Leafs and it should be an interesting one.
BEST NEW FACES
After a few seasons of discontent, Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan made significant changes during the offseason. He completely revamped the front office, coaching staff and the team's roster. His biggest move off the ice was hiring longtime New Jersey Devils president/general manager Lou Lamoriello to be the Maple Leafs' GM. The other big splash was hiring coach Mike Babcock. Both Lamoriello and Babcock bring instant credibility and they will not settle for mediocrity. After Babcock was hired, he immediately reached out to the entire team and told the players what was expected from them. Babcock's presence brings energy, focus and drive to the locker room.
"As a player, you want to play for a guy like that," said Maple Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf.
Babcock won a Stanley Cup with the Detroit Red Wings and also won two Olympic gold medals with Team Canada. He will demand accountability from his players in Toronto.
"There's a lot of excitement," Phaneuf said. "As players, you can use the words 'feed off' or 'energy' or whatever word you want to pick, but there's a lot of excitement."
On the ice, Shanahan knew it was time to part ways with forward Phil Kessel and traded him to the Pittsburgh Penguins. With all their misfortunes the past few seasons, Maple Leafs players knew changes were coming. Now that the 2015-16 season is upon us, there's no more looking back.
"We're just worried about the now," van Riemsdyk said. "It's an exciting time when you see stuff like this happening. It shows the organization is committed to wanting to do things the right way and wanting to be a consistent competitor and a contender."
The Maple Leafs also acquired Michael Grabner in a trade from the New York Islanders. His speed and ability to kill penalties should help.
Sometimes there can be uncertainty when a new GM and coach are hired. That won't be the case with Lamoriello and Babcock. It will be interesting to see how long it takes for the revamped roster and lineup to take shape. When Kessel was traded, some believed that Phaneuf was also on the trading block. But the organization made the commitment to stick with its captain and Babcock went out of his way to support Phaneuf.
"I want to be part of this," Phaneuf said. "Mike's a very structured coach, detailed-oriented coach, and we're going to want to get better every day. With structure, and with our work ethic, as players, that's our job. I want to be part of it and that's why I'm here and I look forward to being part of it."
Phaneuf has said all the right things during the offseason and now it's time to prove it on the ice. Babcock will look to his captain to lead this team out of the ruins and into the spotlight once again.
The Maple Leafs also took a chance on unrestricted free agent P.A. Parenteau and signed the forward to a one-year, $1.5 million deal in July. Parenteau fell from grace with the Montreal Canadiens and the team was forced to buy out his contract. He did not get along with Montreal coach Michel Therrien, but Parenteau believes he will have the confidence and trust from Babcock in Toronto.
Then there's goaltending. Babcock wants either James Reimer or Jonathan Bernier to finally step up and take the No. 1 spot; he has no interest in them sharing starts all season.
When it comes to the past decade of Maple Leafs hockey, the only sure thing was losing. On the bright side, tormented fans can be sure Shanahan, Lamoriello and Babcock will turn this organization around and help this team become a winner again. It might not happen overnight, it could take some time, but rest assured it will happen. Shanahan's vision is clear: He wants to create a team with character. In the past, that character had a negative vibe to it and that was evident with the product on the ice. Shanahan has proved he's not afraid to shake things up and everyone will be held accountable.
WORLD CUP CANDIDATES
The Maple Leafs should have at least five players competing at the World Cup of Hockey next September, including Van Riemsdyk (USA), Leo Komarov (Finland), Roman Polak (Czech Republic), Grabner (Team Europe) and Morgan Rielly (Team North America).
PENDING FREE AGENTS
Since the organization is in the midst of a rebuild, it was smart for Shanahan to sign a lot of these veteran players to one-year deals. That also means there's a long list of unrestricted free agents coming up at the end of the season, including Grabner, Parenteau, Shawn Matthias, Nick Spaling, Mark Arcobello, Polak and Reimer.
The Maple Leafs won't be as bad as most think. The organizational overhaul has been met with enthusiasm, and the way the roster is currently constituted, Shanahan should see the team improve in 2015-16. Still, the the Leafs will likely land in one of the bottom three spots in the division. Seventh in the Atlantic Division.