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Belief hasn’t wavered among the Maple Leafs.
Not in the front office, not among the players, not even after another early trip home from the National Hockey League’s post-season.
This time, of course, it was a five-game fall against the Columbus Blue Jackets, picked by no one to win the 2020 Stanley Cup, in the qualifying round.
Faith in each other, faith from president Brendan Shanahan in general manager Kyle Dubas and in coach Sheldon Keefe, lots of faith.
And, if you followed the company line on Wednesday, the Leafs are that close to making it over the last hurdle.
“It starts in the regular season,” said defenceman Jake Muzzin, on the mend from an injury suffered in Game 2 against the Blue Jackets. “Creating good habits consistently, trying to get better and improve and that’ll just build and fuel a team.
“This year when we struggled, we responded well, but then we would let it slide and I don’t know if that’s getting complacent. There’s lots of things that go into a season, but I do love how our team would respond and put together efforts that were really special. That’s the consistency that I think we need to continue to improve in.
“This group needs to dig in more. We have lots of skill and talent and speed, but when it comes to playoff hockey, the will to win has to be a little bit has to burn a little hotter compared to the other stuff and once we find that, we’ll be dangerous.”
Muzzin knows of what he speaks, having won the Cup with the Los Angeles Kings in 2014. With this Leafs team, however, we would politely suggest that it’s not hardened enough, nor strong enough defensively, to be consistently dangerous in the playoffs.
Each team, no matter the result of its final game, undergoes changes in the off-season.
And for Shanahan, no matter who Dubas adds or deletes from the roster in the next few months, improvements have to come from those wearing Leafs sweaters now.
“If you want to become an elite team in the NHL, teams that go all the way and win, they are teams that know how to defend,” Shanahan said. “Some of the recent Cup winners also have successful offensive players, so it doesn’t necessarily detract from your offence.
“Not putting in a position where you’re always playing catch up, not putting yourself in a position where you’re always having to play a do-or-die game. It’s taking care of business early.
“Getting comfortable and consistent with that throughout the season is really important. That’s going to be a focus, whether it’s our mindset or through personnel. We have to become a team that decides to become very good defensively as a six-man unit.
“We’re not getting outclassed in the playoffs. But we’re not getting over that final hurdle. Becoming a much better team defensively will be helpful.”
About that sandpaper?
“I do believe you can develop grit,” Shanahan said. “I do think players can change how they are perceived, but I also think we recognize that compete level and grit are areas we might have to help our team a little bit with.”
Many on the outside would nod in agreement. We can’t argue with the Leafs’ talent, especially at forward. There’s plenty of skill, and more will arrive when Nick Robertson, and Alexander Barabanov, are full-timers in 2020-21.
Dubas bristled when he was asked whether there’s a part of his vision that needs to be adjusted.
“I don’t find myself transfixed on one thing,” Dubas said. “I think you all think that I have one way of going about things and that it’s never changing, but anybody who knows me or works with me would probably tell you that it’s pretty much the opposite.
“The vision for me always has to be changing. I’m not someone who that is stubborn with that. The goal will be to get us in a different position next year, certainly, and get to the point where we’re making progress and sustaining ourselves as a contending team year in and year out.”
The players won’t have much choice but to look inward for the next couple of months as the Cup playoffs unfold.
“It has been a pretty miserable couple days,” captain John Tavares said. “The type of group we have, the type of talents and skill sets, it can be pretty special if we can come together and find our way. We know what we want to accomplish. It’s more about what we’re willing to do to get there.”
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020