He already knew plenty about the city; he was born in Mississauga and grew up in Oakville, both communities in the Toronto metro region. But the hometown boy knew he was going to face more scrutiny than he ever did with the New York Islanders because of the size of the media presence and the frustration of Leafs fans, many of whom weren’t alive when the team last won the Stanley Cup in 1967.
When the players gathered here for their physicals before the start of training camp, as many as 40 reporters and TV camera people clustered around Tavares. Such numbers would be an extraordinary show of force at this time of year in most markets — but not Toronto, and not after the Leafs landed the top free agent of the NHL offseason.
That is the kind of attention that Tavares and Matthews will face as they try to take Toronto to the next level.
For the past two seasons, the Leafs have shown improvement while featuring a young and speedy group of players who pushed veteran-heavy teams like the Washington Capitals and Boston Bruins to six and seven games, respectively, in first-round playoff defeats. Now with Tavares, Toronto is among the favorites to emerge from the Eastern Conference, along with the Tampa Bay Lightning and reigning champion Capitals. And now there is legitimate hope that the Leafs can capture that elusive Stanley Cup.
“Obviously there is a lot of excitement and attention around the team and high expectations, but all we can control is what we control,” Tavares said. “When you have that type of expectation and everyone has their eyes on you, I think it just means it’s a great opportunity.”
With Tavares and Matthews, you have the equivalent of Chicago’s Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, or Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, or Washington’s Evgeny Kuznetsov and Alex Ovechkin. But with centers Tavares, Matthews and Nazem Kadri, the Leafs are perhaps the strongest team down the middle in the NHL. Tavares scored 37 goals for the Islanders last season; Matthews contributed 34 for the Leafs in only 62 games, and Kadri tallied 32 for a total of 103 goals among those three. Consider that the Capitals' top three centers — Kuznetsov, Nicklas Backstrom and Lars Eller — combined for 66 goals during the regular season, and you can understand why there is so much anticipation in Toronto.
“It’s a major signing,” Brian Burke, the former NHL executive and new Sportsnet analyst, said of Tavares, who turned 28 last month. “This is not a guy on the back nine. This is a guy in the prime of his career who, on poor teams, has put up amazing numbers.”
But lofty expectations will present the Leafs with one of their greatest challenges on their road to the Stanley Cup, particularly if they struggle.
“It’s a tough market, just based on the media numbers,” Burke said. “When a team plays poorly, [reporters] all pick up a rock.”
While selling him on the Leafs, Matthews told Tavares that Toronto is a great place to play, although there are pros and cons. The cons include rumors and unsubstantiated reports that sometimes get blown out of proportion. And it didn’t take long for Tavares to get a taste of just that.
Shortly after Tavares signed his seven-year, $77 million contract, a debate began over whom the captain should be: Tavares or Matthews? Some reports went so far as to suggest the issue was creating a rift between the superstar centers.
Finally, the Leafs ended the speculation by declaring they would go into the season without a captain. They instead named Tavares, veteran forward Patrick Marleau and defenseman Morgan Rielly as alternate captains.
The omission of Matthews caught many by surprise because most assumed the 2016-17 rookie of the year was being groomed to be the team’s future captain. While Tavares is committed for the long term, Matthews’s future is a bit clouded because he has yet to receive a contract extension. He is entering the final season of his entry-level contract, which carries a salary cap hit of $925,000. Negotiations are underway, but Matthews said he is unsure whether he will sign a contract anytime soon. And that unresolved situation is likely to lead to media rumblings, just as the captaincy issue did.
Tavares, who has said he only wanted to be “one of the pieces” of the leadership group, noted that being looked upon as a leader in Toronto is something he won’t take for granted. “I understand what that means and what that represents,” he said.
The sense at training camp was that the Leafs' young guns who have fallen short in the playoffs finally have a superstar in his prime who could show them the way.
“I think we’re set up real good here for, I don’t know, a five- or seven-year run,” Coach Mike Babcock said.
Some of the elite players in the NHL — including Crosby, Malkin, Kane and Dallas’s Tyler Seguin — have said that, other than their own teams, the Leafs would be their pick to win the Stanley Cup.
“Our players have earned the respect of their peers,” said General Manager Kyle Dubas, a 32-year-old who replaced Lou Lamoriello in May. “But we still have a lot to prove as a group. We haven’t won a playoff series yet.”
The hoopla over Tavares is natural. He made his claim to fame in the Toronto area while playing youth hockey and lacrosse. This summer, he married his longtime girlfriend at a Niagara Falls-area winery and was still unpacking at his new home as training camp began.
Tavares was so excited to play in Toronto that he used a childhood photo of himself sleeping in Maple Leafs bedding to announce his new deal on social media. He captioned it: “Not everyday you can live a childhood dream.” The tweet has received more than 109,000 likes.
“Obviously we know where we want to get to,” he said, “and just enjoy the ride.”