Babcock expects his Leafs to 'take a step forward' this season
Additions of Marleau, Moore and Hainsey add veteran presence to young lineup
The Toronto Maple Leafs opened camp Thursday looking to build on last season's promising platform and a sparkling array of young talent.
The Leafs listed 73 players on their camp roster with attention focused on three veteran newcomers: forwards Patrick Marleau and Dominic Moore and defenceman Ron Hainsey, who have 3,247 NHL regular-season games between them.
"I think we're an improved team talent-wise, experience-wise from last year," said coach Mike Babcock, with a nod to his additions.
"We've done more and now we'd like to take a step (forward). And we think these guys, because of the men they are as much as because the players they are, are going to help us with that."
Toronto (40-27-15) finished eighth in the Eastern Conference last season before taking the first-place Washington Capitals to six games in a series that featured five overtime contests. Led by rookie of the year Auston Matthews, the young Leafs finished with 95 points during the regular season — up from 69 the previous season.
While expectations are high among fans after that, defenceman Morgan Rielly played down what the team did last year.
"We're happy with some strides forward that we took last year but when you look back at it, I think we made the playoffs on the last day of the year and lost in the first round," he said. "So we've got a long way to go to get to where we want to and we're all aware of that."
Added GM Lou Lamoriello: "We're still growing."
Babcock finds himself with a wealth of options up front with the addition of Marleau and Moore. The Leafs had three successful lines last season in Matthews, William Nylander and Zach Hyman; Tyler Bozak, James van Riemsdyk and Mitch Marner; and Nazem Kadri, Leo Komorov and Connor Brown.
Add in Matt Martin, Nikita Soshnikov, Josh Leivo and other fourth-line contenders and the numbers game is very tight.
Told he had more NHL-ready forwards than openings, Babcock grinned.
"Isn't that great, eh," he said.
"The right people always end on the team. Sometimes they don't end up on the team right away," he added.
As for who Marleau will play with, Babcock said he told the former San Jose Shark he wasn't sure, "but they're all good."
Babcock, in mid-season inspirational form, sees more progress ahead. But he warned of ups and downs on the journey.
"You just take a step a day. I need guys to be all in every day. That's what I expect. Be focused, be all in every single day and we'll get better together gradually."
Hainsey, who won the Cup with Pittsburgh last season after joining the Penguins from Carolina, will bolster a defence that includes Rielly, Jake Gardiner and Nikita Zaitsev.
Veteran Roman Polak is also back in camp, this time on a professional tryout. The 31-year-old Czech is coming off a gruesome leg injury during last spring's playoffs.
"No promises. We'll just wait and see what transpires during training camp," said Lamoriello, who called Polak a "great human being."
Andersen No. 1 goalie
Frederik Andersen, a tall Dane with a Conan O'Brien coif, returns as the No. 1 goalie but this time he is healthy from the get-go as opposed to last season when he had a shaky start after suffering an injury playing for Denmark prior to the World Cup of Hockey.
Reducing the goals against will be a priority this season. Toronto gave up 234 last season, ninth-worst in the league.
Lamoriello and Babcock said the Leafs will once again go without a captain this season. Matthews, who turns 20 on Sunday, is widely expected to wear the C when the team decides he is ready.
"Right now, where we are as a team and the number of leaders that we have in that (dressing) room, we don't think it's necessary," Lamoriello said of naming a captain. "It's as simple as that."
Babcock said his players had done the work needed during the off-season. Matthews, for one, added pilates to his workout regimen.
"To me what training camp's all about is you get to show off how much work you did in the summer," Babcock said.
"In order to take steps, you've got to put in the work," he added. "And what I like about our group (is) a lot of guys have put in the work."
Babcock singled out Kadri, saying the 26-year-old had had "the best summer since I've know him, for sure."
At the other end of the spectrum, Lamoriello said Nathan Horton and Joffrey Lupul, both long-term injury absentees, failed their medicals.
The Leafs left for Niagara Falls, Ont., later Thursday for on-ice sessions through Sunday. Toronto opens the pre-season Monday in Ottawa.