Three short years ago, when the Toronto Maple Leafs travelled to Ann Arbour, Michigan, to play the Detroit Red Wings in the 2014 NHL Winter Classic, they were a team in flux.
Three years ago, Mitch Marner was in his rookie season in the OHL, watching HBO 24/7: Road to the Winter Classic with his buddies. Now, he’s sitting next to his idol Doug Gilmour in the Leafs’ dressing room at Exhibition Stadium.
“It has been spectacular,” Marner said after the Leafs’ first full practice at the outdoor rink — when he was through circling the room to get autographs of the alumni for one of his sticks. “The HBO 24/7 series, everyone remembered watching that series growing up. Now, being a part of it is pretty cool. We’re pretty lucky.”
Rielly thinks Marner’s memory might be deceiving him.
“We’ve been giving Mitch a hard time, I think he was quoted as saying he enjoyed watching Dougie Gilmour when he was younger but if you go back and check the record books I’m not sure how young Mitch thinks he was when Dougie was playing,” Rielly said, laughing.
Three years ago, Dave Nonis was finishing up his first calendar year as Leafs general manager, Randy Carlyle was still more than two years away from being relieved of his duties as head coach, and the team was eight months removed from its first playoff berth in a decade.
The hiring of Brendan Shanahan as the team’s president was still months away. The overhaul of the team’s management and scouting staff, including the hirings of then OHL general managers Mark Hunter and Kyle Dubas weren’t even on the horizon.
On the ice, Joffrey Lupul, Jay McClement and Carl Gunnarsson were the team’s assistant captains, tasked with helping Dion Phaneuf lead a roster that included long-since-gone players such as David Clarkson, Colton Orr, Jerry D’Amigo, Nikolai Kulemin, Cody Franson, Paul Ranger, Mark Fraser, Frazer McLaren and Mason Raymond, among others.
In the standings, the Leafs were well positioned to make the playoffs again, seventh in the Eastern Conference with 45 points and a 20-16-5 record. But they weren’t playing well, already well on the path to closing the season 12th in the Eastern Conference with just two wins in their final 16 games.
Three years later, only five players will play in their second outdoor game for the Leafs, this time in Toronto for the NHL’s Centennial Classic. Two of them were the goal scorers at The Big House on New Years Day in 2014: Tyler Bozak and James van Riemsdyk. Otherwise, only Jake Gardiner, Morgan Rielly and Nazem Kadri remain.
The alumni recognize the team is heading in a new direction, a more positive one.
“You bring in some young, skilled talent like Matthews, Marner and Nylander, you look at Gardiner, Gardiner’s not old but he’s a mature player now,” Leafs legend Doug Gilmour said on Saturday. “They’re just getting better and better and it’s fun to watch.”
Gardiner, just 26 years old, is a veteran on this team. And he knows it.
“There’s a ton of new faces, a lot of new young, exciting players on our team,” he said. “The whole future looks bright for us and at that point three years ago I probably wouldn’t have said the same thing.”
That day in 2014, after taking warmups, John Michael-Liles was dealt to the Carolina Hurricanes for Tim Gleason. A week later, the Leafs lost four straight and Liles scored against his former team in a 6-1 Carolina win.
At this year’s Centennial Classic, despite being lower in the standings than they were in 2014, now 10th with a record of 16-12-7, the tone is decidedly different with the Leafs. They’re on a new path, one paved by their three first round draft picks since – William Nylander, Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews – as well as head coach Mike Babcock, who stood behind Detroit’s bench in Ann Arbour.
At the 2014 Winter Classic, Rielly was in his first season as a Leaf. Now, he’s counted on as one of the team’s more experienced players and one of the team’s assistant captains.
“A lot has changed, we have a lot of younger talent,” Rielly echoed.
Similarly, van Riemsdyk is confident now, more than ever, in the Leafs.
“There’s definitely some more youth and the skill level in general is higher,” van Riemsdyk said. “I like the way we’re playing this year so hopefully we can keep trending in the right direction.”
Babcock, at the symbolic midway point, thinks this Leafs team is already playing how they need to.
“We had our best segment so far,” Babcock said of the team, which is three points off where they’d hoped to be. “All-in-all we’re in a good spot.”
Moving forward, he’s confident in the direction. But the team needs to stick to the plan, according to Babcock.
“If you do your own job, we have a chance to be great together. If you don’t, we have a chance to look bad together,” the Leafs’ head coach said. “You can see we have good young players and we’re going in the right direction.”
At the centre of the new era, is Matthews.
“It doesn’t matter who you player him against. You just play him and he’s good,” Babcock said of his top rookie. “At the start I looked after him. I don’t look after him at all anymore.”
Matthews, the new face of the franchise, is already confident in himself and the team.
“We feel really good about ourselves, we’ve got a lot of confidence,” Matthews said, pointing to the team’s four-game win streak. “We’re obviously really young but we’re learning quickly and building this young core from the ground up and we’re just going to continue to get better.”