TORONTO — The rear-view mirror is something Toronto stars Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner are doing their best to ignore as the season approaches.
The Maple Leafs’ latest playoff failure — a stunning first-round collapse against the Montreal Canadiens — is still a bit fresh, coming just four months ago.
“It’s pretty self explanatory,” Matthews told The Canadian Press when asked if the setback hurt more than the previous four he has endured with Toronto, a team still in search of its first series victory in the NHL’s salary cap era.
“It’s learning from what happened,” he added. “There’s nothing that we can change now.”
The questions for a team under a microscope more intense than others across the NHL will continue until the on-ice narrative changes.
“The past is the past,” Marner said. “There’s nothing we can do now.”
Led by their dynamic 24-year-old forwards, the Leafs open training camp Wednesday with the knowledge things need to be different this time around.
“The pressure is definitely on,” Marner said. “But we can’t let that get in our mind, we’ve got to realize that we are a great team, and that we do hold ourselves up to a high accountability.”
Toronto seemed to be making real, tangible gains during last season’s pandemic-shortened schedule. The Leafs topped the Canadian-based North Division, an alignment necessitated by COVID-19 border restrictions, with improved team defense and a commitment to structure.
Matthews led the NHL with 41 goals in just 52 games — he missed four with a wrist injury that eventually required surgery last month — to capture his first Maurice (Rocket) Richard Trophy, while Marner was fourth in league scoring.
Toronto added leadership and grit with Joe Thornton and Wayne Simmonds, while a leaky blue line appeared to find its stride with new arrivals T.J. Brodie and Zach Bogosian.
The Leafs were 18 points clear of Montreal in the standings and, despite losing captain John Tavares to injury, led the series 3-1 only see the Canadiens rally to advance.
Matthews, who’s hoping his wrist will be healed by opening night Oct. 13 against Montreal, kept up his end of the bargain in the playoffs, but Marner was criticized by fans as his inability to score in the postseason reached 18 straight contests.
“Block out the outside noise,” Marner said of the key for his team as it returns to a competitive Atlantic Division. “Make sure that we’re not letting that outside noise and that doubt get into our mindset.”
The Leafs lost Thornton, Bogosian, goalie Frederik Andersen, trade deadline acquisition Nick Foligno and others this summer. The new faces include netminder Petr Mrazek, bruising forward Nick Ritchie and winger Michael Bunting.
“Sometimes change is good,” Matthews said. “Sometimes you bring in new guys, and maybe we’re missing something or maybe they just mesh differently.”
Like their team’s core of stars, coach Sheldon Keefe, general manager Kyle Dubas and even president Brendan Shanahan are facing intense pressure to have Toronto break through. But both Matthews and Marner skated around questions about whether it feels like this group’s last dance.
“I think it’s funny when it’s, ‘Now or never,’” said Matthews, who turned 24 last week. “You guys make me I feel like I’m 40.”
“I don’t want to look too far ahead,” Marner added.
Dubas has shown faith in Matthews, Marner, Tavares and William Nylander — the four high-priced forwards chew up nearly half the team’s salary cap — throughout his tenure. He said he believed the best from the group is coming this season.
So what exactly does that look like?
“Getting rid of the ego part and really buying into the team,” Matthews said. “The best teams, you just set aside your personal pride … and it’s all about whatever it takes. That’s not to say that we don’t have that.
”(But) if we want to get to the best version of ourselves and the best version of this team, that’s a part of it.”
Another part of it, surely, is trying to stay in the moment — a difficult task perhaps bordering on impossible in a city scarred by recent disappointment and 54 years without a Stanley Cup.
“You can get caught up pretty easily looking at the past or the future and trying to think of where your team should be,” Marner said. “It’s just trying to push each other to be better. Should be exciting times ahead.”