After big improvement, Leafs wary of rising expectations

TORONTO (AP) Lou Lamoriello described the Maple Leafs' season as a ''step'' and nothing more.

''It's a step and then now it's our job to convince the players that it's only a step,'' Toronto's general manager said. ''It's going to get more difficult.''

While pleased with the success of a season which saw the club improve 26 points in the standings and qualify unexpectedly for the playoffs, Leafs management went out of their way Tuesday to keep expectations in check and stress a difficult road ahead.

Coach Mike Babcock said the team expected to make the playoffs again next season, but even that would be a difficult proposition given the quality of teams that missed out this season.

Toronto wasn't at the point yet either where it could just assume entry into the playoffs each season - much like the Washington Capitals, who beat the Leafs in the first round of the playoffs.

''We want to be a team in that situation that you're in the playoffs every year - when the puck's dropped at the start of the season you know and it's just how far you play in the spring,'' said Babcock, who guided teams like that in Detroit for 10 seasons. ''That's what we want to get to. We're not at that level.''

The Leafs doesn't have the organizational depth yet of a team like Tampa - a Stanley Cup finalist in 2015 and Eastern Conference finalist in 2016 - which nearly made the playoffs this spring despite a rash of key injuries.

Babcock noted that his team, which had only one point more than the Lightning despite no major injuries, wouldn't have survived under such circumstances.

Toronto's coach was already looking ahead to the upcoming world championships where he planned to scout a few players of interest.

Lamoriello wouldn't identify what offseason needs the club had specifically, but defense is an obvious area of weakness.

The Leafs likely need to add at least one quality defenseman to their top two pairings and they'll have to decide if they want to bring back veteran defenders Roman Polak and Matt Hunwick, both impending free agents.

Promising rookies Nikita Zaitsev, Connor Brown and Zach Hyman are also due new contracts and the expansion draft is in June.

Beyond their defense, there are holes to fill at fourth line center and backup goaltender - though both Brian Boyle and Curtis McElhinney are options to return.

Babcock surprised Tuesday when he announced that William Nylander, who thrived alongside Auston Matthews at right wing, would not play center next season.

That either means Tyler Bozak, a trade candidate who has one year remaining on his contract, will return for another year or the club will search for two external options at center beyond Matthews and Nazem Kadri.

Toronto will have money to spend if it so chooses - though weighty second contracts loom for Nylander (summer of 2018), Matthews (2019) and Mitch Marner (2019).

Kadri noted how much more positive the Leafs' locker cleanout was from earlier years and he was fine with expectations inevitably rising next season.

''People understand we're a good team now so we've earned that respect,'' said the 26-year-old center. ''But now we have to earn the respect of being one of the best teams if we want to compete.''

Kadri believed the Leafs were already on the clock as a Cup contender. Lamoriello was more guarded, saying ''close is a funny word.''

''I think that you have to be extremely careful when you have a year like this, coming from the year before, as far as you might think it's OK,'' Lamoriello said. ''This is a tough league.''

The Leafs seemed to speed up their window toward Cup contention this past year as rookies such as Matthews, Nylander and Marner showed they were ready to not only contribute but be impact players.

Adding to that was continued development from Kadri, Morgan Rielly, Jake Gardiner and first-year starting goalie Frederik Andersen.

Expectations increased once more when Toronto pushed the best team in the NHL in a tight six-game series.

If not ''automatic'' just yet, the Leafs will be expected to make the playoffs next season and anything less will be a disappointment.

''The expectations have certainly changed,'' Rielly said. ''You expect us to win more games and with that comes playoffs and winning in playoffs.''

Veteran Leo Komarov thought next season would be more challenging for the Leafs, but the 30-year-old also believed the team would be helped by young players with a year of NHL experience under their belts.

Toronto managed its big improvement despite dressing at least seven rookies most games - a credit to Babcock.

The Leafs were also aware, however, that the surprise factor would be gone next season. Opponents would be aware of how Nylander handled the puck, how Marner passed it and how Matthews fired it.

''So there's a lot that has to transpire,'' Lamoriello said. ''That's why it's just a step.''

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More AP hockey: https://www.apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

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