- Associated Press - Tuesday, October 3, 2017

TORONTO (AP) - No one will be surprised by the Toronto Maple Leafs this season.

Not after a 26-point jump in 2016-17, when the Leafs improved to 40-27-15, finished eighth in the Eastern Conference and pushed the first-place Washington Capitals to six games - five of which ended in overtime - before being eliminated. Since then, Toronto has added veteran forwards Patrick Marleau and Dominic Moore and defenseman Ron Hainsey, who have a combined 3,548 games between them.

Coach Mike Babcock likes what he sees.

“My message thus far after I’ve seen us in camp is that talent level is way up. But that means the work level’s got to be way up,” he said. “So we’ve got to learn how to play right and play hard and do it every single day.”

The message that the Leafs still have to prove themselves has clearly been absorbed by the players.

“Some of the foundation was built last year, in terms of what it takes (to win),” said defenseman Connor Carrick. “But there’s been story after story about teams that had a year of success and then not, a couple of years of success and then not.”

“We’re definitely a more confident group but we still have zero wins (this season),” he added. “It’s all about building ourselves into an animal that nobody wants to play against come playoff time.”

Rookie of the year Auston Matthews (40 goals, 29 assists) more than delivered on his pre-draft promise. And a young supporting cast that includes Mitch Marner (19 goals, 42 assists) and William Nylander (22 goals, 39 assists) is both exciting and productive.

“It’s impressive,” Carrick said of the team’s arsenal. “It’s fun to be around and it’s contagious.”

There is veteran talent up front in Tyler Bozak, James van Riemsdyk, Nazem Kadri and Leo Komarov. Morgan Rielly, Jake Gardiner and Nikita Zaitsev are smooth-skating defensemen on the rise and it was also suggested to Babcock that he had more NHL-ready forwards than openings.

“Isn’t that great, eh?” he said.

While Toronto ranked fifth best in goals scored (250) last season, it was ninth worst in goals allowed (234). And can Toronto go another season escaping injury?

“Teams are going to respect us more, (but) they’re going to be more prepared to play against us,” Kadri said. “So it’s going to get a little more difficult but nothing we can’t handle.”

Matthews continues to center Zach Hyman and Nylander. New arrival Marleau has been slotted in on the wing alongside Kadri and Komarov.

Hard-nosed Matt Martin and Connor Brown appear to have fourth-line places locked down.

On defense, Rielly has been paired with Hainsey. Curtis McElhinney, Frederik Andersen’s backup, answered critics with a pair of solid pre-season performances.

This will be the last season for the Leafs‘ home as the Air Canada Centre. Come July, it will be renamed Scotiabank Arena.


For more AP NHL coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

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