Maple Leafs enter 2018-19 with unprecedented buzz, swagger

Larry Tanenbaum is standing in the lobby of a midtown Manhattan hotel on the eve of the regular season, discreetly pumping clenched fists towards the sky. The chairman of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment has chosen to punctuate an answer about how things look from the owner’s box with a gesture any hockey fan would instantly recognize.

By grabbing an imaginary Stanley Cup and giving it a quick lift in the air.

“Excited. Unbelievably excited,” Tanenbaum told Sportsnet on Tuesday. “I have been part of the ownership group for 23 years now and I have never felt such excitement about the season ahead of us.”

On this point he’s far from alone.

There is a giddiness in Toronto after the summer of John Tavares that not even William Nylander’s ongoing contract standoff could pop. With the leaves starting to change colour and meaningful hockey returning to a newly renamed Scotiabank Arena on Wednesday night, this is a populace already daring to dream about the spring.

That includes Tanenbaum, a sprightly 70-something grandfather who keeps a remarkably low profile for someone who’s owned a chunk of hockey’s strongest brand for nearly a quarter-century. He was around for the Pat Quinn Era and all those really-good-but-not-great teams fronted by Mats Sundin. He’s also seen fans pull paper bags over their heads and throw waffles on the ice in protest from his seats directly behind the home bench.

Out of the ashes of those lost seasons grew something strong — overseen by president Brendan Shanahan, the son of a firefighter, who burned much of what he inherited with the organization to the ground. It was he who convinced Mike Babcock to put aside the pain and see the hidden potential here and who built the hockey operations department that drafted Nylander, Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews in consecutive years.

Things have been moving at a dizzying pace since.

From the four-goal debut by Matthews to an unexpected playoff berth to a record-setting regular season to a disappointing seven-game loss to Boston. Bang, bang, bang, bang. Tanenbaum was standing on the ice in June when the Toronto Marlies were blasted with confetti after winning the Calder Cup, and saw the arc of his entire enterprise change with the stroke of a pen when Tavares decided to come home 17 days later.

“It’s everything. It’s really the building of the team, you know?” said Tanenbaum, speaking to the root of his enthusiasm. “If you go back to the last few years, I give full credit to Brendan and [general manager] Kyle [Dubas] and Lou [Lamoriello] before him, and Mike. They’ve just done a spectacular job.”

And yet here at the turn of a fresh schedule the shovels are really just breaking ground. There is Montreal on Wednesday, Ottawa on Saturday, Chicago on Sunday and all sorts of less predictable things to come.

“I feel like it’s my first year here,” said Babcock. “Now I get to coach the team.”

Off in the distance, they see several peaks in need of summiting.

“I think last year people still didn’t really take us too seriously,” said Marner. “People thought of us as a good team, but not a great team. I think this year it’s going to be different.”

It already feels different to be a Leaf.

There’s a swagger that comes from being able to roll out Matthews, Tavares and Nazem Kadri down the middle. There’s also the fresh perspective of a 32-year-old general manager, who isn’t going to impose any musty bans on facial hair or the style of suits players wear or the video games they choose to play in their free time.

“We’re asking for them for nine months,” said Dubas. “I want the players to be at their best, whatever their individual best may be. I think part of that is letting them really express themselves, in a professional manner.”

They won’t be able to control the runaway train of hope and enthusiasm that accompanies the journey through 2018-19. Just think of the ride it could be with two 50-point defencemen, three 30-plus goal scorers and a maestro in Marner orchestrating the power play.

Even Tanenbaum, with his raft of experience and natural lowkey demeanour, acknowledges that “we all try to manage expectations, but it’s hard.”

In the hours before the puck was dropped on a new season he had some big ones, too.

“My expectations are that we’re going to do very well and we’re going to compete for that championship trophy there. That’s what I want,” said Tanenbaum. “I want to hold up that Stanley Cup.”

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