Eighteen games separate the Toronto Maple Leafs from the 2024 post-season. Eighteen games, and roughly one month, to hone what must be honed, to solidify what exactly this team is, before the year’s true test begins.

The pressure seems to ramp up every year for Sheldon Keefe’s group. This year is no different, the club having found a moment of progress in 2023 with the franchise’s first series win in nearly two decades, before ultimately falling short in disappointing fashion. Now, after the front-office upheaval, the off-season retooling, and a few bits of trade-deadline business to tinker with the blue line, the Maple Leafs have arrived at the home stretch.

“You’re seeking consistency as a group, in your mindset,” Keefe said after Wednesday’s practice wrapped up, when asked what he wants to see from his team heading into this final slate of 2023-24. “You’re looking for cohesion. We didn’t have a lot of change here, particularly with the forwards, but on defence we’ve got some change. And we need that to come together. We need the group itself to continue to grow together.”

Toronto’s defence corps has been a topic of discussion all season. First, there was the off-season addition of John Klingberg, which lasted only 14 games before injuries shortened the veteran’s year. Then there were injuries, the emergence of other new faces — like Simon Benoit — and the lengthy run of rumours linking Toronto with a move for the rugged Chris Tanev.

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Now, the group is set, Treliving having added 2019 Cup champ Joel Edmundson, and bringing back former Leaf Ilya Lyubushkin. Edmundson skated alongside young Timothy Liljegren Wednesday, with Lyubushkin in his usual spot alongside Morgan Rielly, and TJ Brodie paired with Jake McCabe.

Up front, the Maple Leafs’ most impactful add has been internal, with the rise of Bobby McMann unexpectedly altering the complexion of the group. The 27-year-old drew back into the lineup in mid-February simply because a flu bug was working its way through the locker room, sidelining some of the team’s mainstays.

McMann came up with a hat trick, and then four more goals over his next four games. After seeing him add another the last time the club took the ice, the Maple Leafs announced Wednesday that McMann had inked a two-year $2.7-million extension.

“While there isn’t change with the actual personnel on forward here, we do have a little bit of change in the sense that we do have the emergence of someone like Bobby McMann,” Keefe said Wednesday. “He’s blossoming, and giving us additional options.”

McMann skated with David Kampf and Matthew Knies during Wednesday’s practice, while John Tavares centred Max Domi and William Nylander, and Auston Matthews lined up with Tyler Bertuzzi and Calle Jarnkrok.

The club remains without Mitch Marner, who’s been sidelined since last week’s tilt with the Boston Bruins. Keefe provided little in the way of an update on the winger Wednesday, other than to say Marner has yet to skate since suffering the lower-body injury: “Read into that what you will,” the coach said.

“You’d like to solidify some things and keep things consistent, but this time of year there’s various different things. Right now it’s Mitch’s injury,” Keefe said of the injury’s ripple effect throughout the forward lines. “That’s a significant player that changes the outlook of our team pretty dramatically, so you’ve got to adjust accordingly. That’s really it. But I think we have a pretty good sense of our lines and combinations that work, we’ve been pretty consistent through the season for the most part.”

Along with Edmundson, the Maple Leafs picked up fourth-line pivot Connor Dewar at the deadline. The 24-year-old got into his first game last week, and skated alongside Pontus Holmberg and Ryan Reaves on Wednesday. With a four-day break between games — the Maple Leafs return to the ice on the road against Philadelphia on Thursday — and a few days off altogether, the newcomers were granted some time to settle into their new situation.

“It gives a couple of days for the guys we got to catch their breath a bit, get their lives — not just at the rink but away from the rink — sorted and settled,” John Tavares said of the brief break. “Taking care of some of those details that go along with being traded and going to a new spot. And obviously just acclimating to the team, getting a sense of how we go about our daily business — how we practice, the way we want to play, and just the overall feel for the group and getting to know one another.

“So, a good chance for all that. The schedule is what it is, and we all have breaks and different things throughout the season. So, it’s up to us as a group and guys individually to maximize those times.”

Now, the deadline chaos is over with, the group’s had a moment to rest and refocus before what’s to come, and the home stretch begins — with all eyes focused on the games to be played after these next 18.

“Every game you go along, it gets harder and harder, because you get closer to the playoffs,” said Max Domi of the club’s final slate. “We’ve said that from Christmas, really — you’ve got to start upping your game. This is what you want to play for. You want to play for the chance to be in the playoffs, and when you get there, anything can happen.

“That’s what we’re focused on now — just taking it day by day, trying to get better as a group, and trying to make it into the playoffs here.”

End

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