HENDERSON, Nev. — John Tavares could only watch and wait.
The Toronto Maple Leafs captain was still processing his team’s second-round playoff exit when Kyle Dubas took the stage for an emotional end-of-season press conference.
It would be the latter’s final public act with the organization.
Dubas was fired as general manager in May despite helping Toronto get over its long post-season hump after a tumultuous stretch that started with him questioning his desire to continue in the role with the cameras rolling.
Leafs president Brendan Shanahan made the decision for him shortly thereafter by dropping the hammer before hiring Brad Treliving, who had just left the Calgary Flames, as a veteran replacement.
“There’s been a tremendous amount of continuity in my time in Toronto, and probably the most significant shift and change that we’ve had,” Tavares said at this week’s NHL/NHLPA player media tour in suburban Las Vegas. “Not easy, just because you’ve been through a lot with Kyle.
“But that’s the sport, that’s the business. Unfortunately things didn’t work out.”
Now after a summer of change, Tavares and the Leafs are ready to move forward.
Treliving shook up the roster in free agency, adding a combination of skill, sandpaper and personality to the group by signing forwards Tyler Bertuzzi, Max Domi and Ryan Reaves, along with defenceman John Klingberg.
He then inked Auston Matthews, who could have walked into unrestricted free agency next summer, to a contract extension that commits the star centre to Toronto through the 2027-28 campaign. Treliving also extended head coach Sheldon Keefe’s current deal for two seasons beyond 2023-24.
“Brad’s come in and he’s been tremendous,” said Tavares, who signed a seven-year, US$77-million contract to come home to Toronto in the first few months of the Dubas tenure in July 2018. “He wants to come in and just continue to elevate what we already have going on with the group and how we operate.
“Things have definitely sunk in and the page has been turned.”
Treliving mentioned on the first day of free agency he wanted to liven up the team’s culture, describing the locker room as “quiet” to reporters.
“I don’t think it’s a bad thing,” Tavares said of adding vocal pieces. “We have a very committed, a very driven group that’s under a tremendous amount of attention and spotlight. It’s good to have a balance of things and guys that can come in and bring a different type of energy.
“As he’s expressed to me, (Treliving) just wants to tweak the knobs and the dials to find the right mix to help us get to our ultimate goal.”
The Leafs defeated the Tampa Bay Lightning last spring to move on in the post-season for the first time since 2004, but were no match for the physicality of the Florida Panthers in the next round.
Tavares said Bertuzzi, Domi and Reaves, players unafraid to mix things up in the dirty areas, will help Toronto with that, along with their ability in hockey’s dark arts — the game within the game — before, during and after the play.
“It’s (personality) not just off the ice,” Tavares said. “It’s on the ice, too. These players can play. It’s not just about bringing sandpaper … it’s their ability to impact the game in different areas.
“Those guys will definitely come in and bring some of that, which will help elevate that from everyone.”
Ilya Samsonov heads into his second Toronto training camp as the team’s undisputed No. 1 goaltender after splitting duties with Matt Murray for long stretches last season.
The Russian was rewarded with a one-year, $3.55-million contract in arbitration after posting a 27-10-5 record to go along with a .919 save percentage in 2022-23.
“He’s been hard at work,” Tavares said of the netminder cut loose by the Washington Capitals in July 2022. “Wants to go out there and deliver. He’s a great competitor.
“He’s a very driven goalie.”
Tavares and his family opened their home to Matthew Knies after he joined the Leafs out of U.S. college hockey for last season’s playoffs.
With another summer under the 20-year-old winger’s belt, his landlord expects big things.
“Sky’s the limit for him,” Tavares said. “Really impressed with the way he came in.”
Knies also saw his post-season cut short by a concussion after getting wrestled to the ice by Florida forward Sam Bennett in the second round.
“Definitely some things he’ll learn, especially from the playoffs and the physical nature of it,” Tavares said. “Held his own extremely well, which is not an easy thing to do. It was a bit surprising, to be honest. And then you add along his skill set. He’s got great hands, great touch, great touches with the puck, make solid plays.
“He’s a huge home run for us. His potential’s through the roof.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 13, 2023.
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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press