Tavares among Maple Leafs with plenty to prove in 2022-23
Photo by Chris O'Meara/AP It would be hard to imagine another NHL team having more to prove collectively than the Maple Leafs as we embark on the 2022-23 season.

As his fifth training camp in Toronto wound to a close this week, John Tavares was asked if he’d seen anything to suggest this latest iteration of the Maple Leafs had any extra sense of hunger or urgency about it.

It was not an entirely fair premise, of course, given the ever-present demands placed on everyone playing the game at this level. Of all the reasons you might be inclined to point to when discussing the Leafs playoff stumbles, a lack of desire wouldn’t possibly be one of them.

Still, Tavares did acknowledge sensing a different feel around this camp. An "evolution in the maturity," as he termed it.

"The guys have been through a lot," he said. "Our core guys are basically in the early part of the prime of their career and the maturity just gets stronger every year. I think just the demeanour, the habits every day, the leadership and just the attitude and how driven they are. Not letting too much get away.

“I think it just continues to add fuel to the fire, so to speak.”

It would be hard to imagine another NHL team having more to prove collectively than the Leafs as we embark on the 2022-23 season.

As it turns out, you could make the same case on an individual basis for a number of players inside that dressing room, too.

Start with Tavares, the 32-year-old captain who is both trying to hold off Father Time and the cumulative toll of injury. He’ll play Wednesday’s opener in Montreal after returning from an oblique strain at least a week ahead of schedule and says he doesn’t want to contemplate how much of a deficit he might be running due to the missed days at camp.

The decline in play from Tavares has probably been overstated to some extent among observers – he’s coming off a 76-point season and had some big moments in the back half of the playoff loss to Tampa. But it’s also part of the territory when you’re carrying an $11-million cap hit on a team consistently falling short.

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Entering a season where he’s on track to play his 1,000th career game and sits just nine goals shy of 400, Tavares must reinvent himself to some degree. The Leafs can’t afford to employ yesterday’s man at his price tag. What they could really use is a renaissance performance like the one Steven Stamkos produced last year in Tampa.

At least he shares a line with a teammate who has something big to play for in his own right: William Nylander, who is eligible to sign a contract extension as soon as July 1. He may never completely quiet the critics, but following up on a career-best 80 points with another strong season could pave the way to a big payday.

Security is hard to come by among these Leafs.

A significant portion of the opening night lineup is eligible for unrestricted free agency in 2023: Michael Bunting, Alex Kerfoot, Pierre Engvall, David Kampf, Nicolas Aube-Kubel, Zach Aston-Reese and Justin Holl.

Then there is goaltender Matt Murray, trying to resurrect his career after three years spent in the wilderness. And veteran Jake Muzzin, hoping to turn back the clock after an injury-plagued campaign. And 22-year-old Rasmus Sandin, looking to finally grab a permanent NHL job following a camp abbreviated by an extended contract stalemate.

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Even Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner should find themselves with no lack of motivation. They’ve each had monster individual performances – delivering on the considerable promise that accompanied their arrival in the league – but suffer somewhat from the lack of playoff success still missing on their resumes.

Whether by design or circumstance, this is the environment now inhabited by the Leafs.

It even extends to the management suite, where general manager Kyle Dubas is working in the final year of his contract with no extension in sight. His hand-picked head coach, Sheldon Keefe, has just one season remaining beyond this one.

Add it all together and the stakes are fairly apparent for an organization coming off its best two regular seasons in history by points percentage but has seen its margin for error in the playoffs shrink while losing five more potential elimination games.

The Leafs are no longer a young team by NHL standards.

They instead carry the weight brought on by past disappointments and an uncertain future, plus the added hunger that comes from all they’ve been through.

“I think it’s been really solid – that evolution in the maturity,” said Tavares. “I think a lot of the credit goes to the vets we’ve had here over the years. Obviously [Jason Spezza] has been really influential, Patty Marleau was big, especially for Mitchy and Auston when they were really young.

“You can kind of see that stuff start to evolve.”

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