TORONTO – Tomas Kaberle’s faith in the latest version of the Toronto Maple Leafs isn’t built on a good pre-season record or anything in particular he’s seen on the ice.
Instead, it comes from the feeling he gets each time he walks in the dressing room at Air Canada Centre. There’s a distinct feeling of change—and hope—in the air.
That was missing too often in the team’s recent past.
“First of all it’s losing,” said Kaberle. “With losing, it’s never easy, and a lot of negativity is going to come from outside—obviously, from you guys (the media) and the fans. You’re going to hear it. When you’re losing, (bad) things (are) going to happen when you come in the dressing room.
“I think we have a way more positive dressing room this year than the years before.”
As the longest-serving Leaf by a longshot, the 32-year-old defenceman has been through several peaks and valleys with the organization. He’s seen the city virtually turn itself upside down during a playoff run and watched as the fans turned on a losing team.
It was never more difficult than last season.
The Leafs stumbled to an 0-7-1 start and didn’t get remotely close to the Eastern Conference playoff race. They finished 29th overall with 72 points—the fourth straight year their total declined. Worst of all, Kaberle sensed an urgency was missing.
“We need to go 60 minutes hard, some of the nights it wasn’t there,” he said. “It hurt us.”
General manager Brian Burke recognized the problem as well and started making changes before the Olympic break. He continued retooling during the summer, highlighted by the acquisition of forward Kris Versteeg just weeks after he won the Stanley Cup in Chicago.
Versteeg has taken a place on the top line with Phil Kessel and Tyler Bozak entering the season. In addition to making that duo more dynamic, he brings experience to the dressing room that will be called upon when things get tough.
“We can’t be good once every week, we need to be good every night here,” said Versteeg. “Now it comes down to the grind, this is a long season. At game 40 sometimes you’re licking your wounds and you’re wondering how many games you have left. We’ve got to somehow pull it together, pull a full season out.”
The expectations are modest as Toronto prepares to open its schedule against Montreal on Thursday night.
Unlike last year, there have been no bold statements about this being a playoff team. In fact, after wrapping up the pre-season with a 5-3-1 record, Leafs coach Ron Wilson indicated they would be fortunate to find themselves in the post-season come April.
“There’s always surprise teams and we want to be one of those teams,” he said. “It’s going to be up to us to be ready and play it one game at a time. … There’s a lot of teams in the same boat as we are.”
It’s no secret where the improvement has to come from. The Leafs were dreadful on special teams a year ago—finishing 30th on the power play and penalty kill—and can’t repeat that dubious feat.
There were plenty of positive signs during the exhibition games, especially with the power play. A top unit featuring Dion Phaneuf, Kaberle, Kessel, Bozak and Versteeg showed composure and was “scary dangerous,” according to Wilson.
Opposing teams seemed to have trouble figuring out which player to zero on.
“The good thing is that we don’t have only one option,” said Kaberle. “Now every team is going to have to worry about all five guys.”
The Leafs also need to do a better job of keeping the puck out of their net. Having goaltenders J-S Giguere and Jonas Gustavsson around all season should help, but the team will also need some improved play from the defenceman.
While some outside the organization view the blue-line as the Leafs main strength, Wilson expressed concern about the group at the conclusion of the pre-season. He planned to use the final practice days working on details with the defencemen.
“(There’s) little bad habits that some guys have that we have to find a way to change,” he said.
In particular, it will be up to Phaneuf, Kaberle, Francois Beauchemin and Mike Komisarek to make it happen. Those veterans hold down to the top four spots on the blue-line.
Up front, Wilson is pleased with the “mix” he’s found. Nikolai Kulemin had a solid training camp while skating alongside Mikhail Grabovski and newcomer Clarke MacArthur on the second line; and journeyman Tim Brent emerged as the centre on a shutdown unit with agitator Colby Armstrong and Fredrik Sjostrom.
There’s probably no one in the dressing room facing more expectations than Kessel. A shoulder injury forced him to miss the first month of last season and he still managed to score 30 times for a poor hockey team.
Now feeling completely healthy, he refuses to set a specific performance goal heading into this season.
“Win games, that’s (all I want),” said Kessel. “I know I’m going to have to score some goals for us to win some games this year. I’m looking forward to it.”
He’s not the only one.
For members of the Leafs organization, the last 12 months have included plenty of frustrating moments. But there’s a sense that better times lie ahead.
“It was a different feeling last year,” said Wilson. “This is an entirely different group of people. … We’re coming out of camp a lot healthier and feeling better about ourselves.”