“We’ll make the playoffs and compete for the Stanley Cup,” says Paul Maurice. The pledge was made on the opening day of training camp Thursday At his first Leafs camp one year ago, Maurice did not dare go out on such a limb, offering only that Toronto would be in a dogfight to make the playoffs. He was right. They missed, by only one point, for the second consecutive season – hence the urgency instigating the new pledge.
“We all should feel the urgency,” captain Mats Sundin said after undergoing his medical exam and participating in fitness tests.
Success is possible this season because general manager John Ferguson has “really strengthened our team,” said Sundin.
Add-ons Vesa Toskala, the former San Jose backup who’ll vie for the No. 1 goaltending job with incumbent Andrew Raycroft, and Jason Blake, who scored 40 goals last season for the New York Islanders, will make a difference, said Sundin.
“We’re a stronger group and, knock on wood, if we can stay healthy we should be a playoff team,” he said.
Maurice will supervise on-ice workouts Friday, the first exhibition game is Tuesday in Edmonton and the regular season begins at home against Ottawa on Oct. 3.
Ferguson and Maurice both say that decreasing goals against is the main improvement the Leafs must make in order to reach the promised land of the post-season.
“I’m comfortable with where our offensive game is,” said Maurice. “Our team, offensively, was good enough to win the Stanley Cup (last season).
“We scored as many goals as Anaheim. We were in the top 10 and we’d like to get into the top five and become an elite offensive team. The challenge will be being a good defensive hockey team without losing any of our offence.”
Maurice says he won’t institute a neutral zone trap defensive system to try and hit the target of reducing goals against. He doesn’t like it. It’s too boring. He’ll stick with the attack-first philosophy, while constantly reminding players of their checking responsibilities.
“We’re going to try to do both, and that’s the mark of a good team,” Maurice said.
Continued improvement in the play of youngsters Alex Steen, Kyle Wellwood and Matt Stajan is another requirement if Maurice’s pledge of a playoff berth is to become reality.
“On all good teams the younger players have to really start to show the older guys, ‘You know what, if you don’t play good, we’re going to take your spot,”‘ said Sundin. “That’s a competition you need to have in any group.
“They should feel the urgency to be better this year and be more productive and be a bigger part of the team.”
Steen says he’s up to the challenge.
“Everybody is looking forward to this year,” said Steen. “A lot of good things can happen with this team.
“We feel very confident that we have a team that can do some damage once we get in the playoffs, which obviously is a huge goal for us. If we stay healthy – the last couple of years we’d had some problems with injuries – we feel we’re going to be a tough team to beat.”
While critics might knock Ferguson for bringing back the bulk of a lineup that missed the playoffs, Steen deduces that keeping the core group intact was a plus.
“The atmosphere we had in the dressing room last year was unbelievable and we can build off of that,” he said.
Wellwood was felled by a sports hernia last season and got into only 48 games. Having not been in a real game since last April, camp couldn’t open soon enough.
“Hearing the (clock) alarm go off, you can’t hit the sleep button anymore,” he said. “It’s fun to get up and do something.”
Ditto for veteran forward Darcy Tucker.
“We had a long summer to think about things,” he said. “It’s nice to get back and see some of the new guys.”
Toronto will play eight of its first 10 regular-season games at home. It earned only 47 points in Air Canada Centre last season, and that was another factor in its demise.
“We need to get off to a quick start and make sure we’re in the hunt right from the get-go,” said Sundin.
Sundin’s decision to sign a one-year contract during the off-season raised some eyebrows and will spark discussion about his future during the winter. The Swede hopes it doesn’t become a distraction.
“It shouldn’t be – not for me anyway, and if it’s not for me it shouldn’t be for anyone else,” he said. “There’s no hidden agendas on why I signed a one-year deal. It was the thing that felt the best for me.
“My only desire is to be part of a championship team here. I want to end my career in Toronto.”
He’s 36 now so his career is winding down.
“It’s not depressing,” he said. “It’s motivating.
“I feel I’m as good a player as I was five years ago. It’s a good motivation thing to know my big goal is still to be part of a championship team in Toronto. We haven’t achieved that and that’s something that’s going to help motivate me for this season.”
The title is up for grabs, added Sundin.
“It’s anybody’s game at the start of the season. You look at the past couple of years. It’s really tough to predict a Stanley Cup winner. So, yeah, we have as good a chance to win a championship as a lot of other teams this year. I’m very excited about that. I’m hungry to have some playoff success.”
Maurice is confident his players will earn themselves a banquet.
“This will be the most talented hockey team I’ve ever coached,” he said.