TORONTO – The Toronto Maple Leafs opened training camp Saturday with fitness tests and the promise that they’ll be a much tougher team to play against this season.
The off-season acquisitions of bruising defencemen Mike Komisarek, Francois Beauchemin and Garnet Exelby and of belligerent forward Colton Orr clearly showed where GM Brian Burke is steering the Leafs as they begin pursuit of the playoff berth that has eluded the franchise since 2004.
“We want to be a tough team to play against,” said the six-foot-four Komisarek as he emerged from the gym wiping sweat from his brow with his T-shirt. “We want to be physical and mean.
“We want to dominate that physical aspect of the game.”
There is no mystery as to what the six-foot-three Orr supplies.
In 245 NHL games with the Bruins and the Rangers, he scored four goals and amassed 549 penalty minutes including 63 fighting majors.
“It’s great to come play for the Toronto Maple Leafs and Brian Burke,” he said. “We’ve talked about coming in here and bringing some toughness and that’s what we’re looking to do.”
Orr will wear 28, the same as the retired Tie Domi.
“I’ve had 28 since junior,” said Orr, adding with a grin that he’s well aware of the enforcer role played by Domi. “I’ve heard some things, yeah.”
Coach Ron Wilson loves the swagger of his group.
“I don’t think it’s necessarily about beating people up, like everybody seems to think we’re going to do,” said Wilson. “It’s about having competitive people who push each other to get better every day, and that is what we want.”
Wilson and Burke were to address the 62 camp participants at a Saturday night dinner at a downtown hotel and one of the topics was avoiding fisticuffs before the first pre-season game, which will be at home Wednesday against Boston.
“We don’t really want to see any fisticuffs in scrimmages,” said Wilson. “Now, inevitably, something could happen but, hopefully, if we see two guys square off and back up we’ll try to (have referees) jump in right away.
“We know who’s tough on the team and we’ll save it for the exhibition games. Fighting each other in practice isn’t going to prove anything. We want everybody to compete hard and push each other in the drills and scrimmages, show us where they fit on our depth chart but, the toughness part, we know all about. We want them to hold back until we play other teams.”
All coaches are optimistic on the opening day of camp and Wilson was no different.
“We believe we have enough talent here to set the playoffs as a goal,” said Wilson. “There is a different sense around the team with the people we’ve brought in.”
Incumbent Vesa Toskala’s attempt to survive a challenge from newcomer Jonas Gustavsson for the No. 1 goaltending job will be interesting to watch. Toskala shut it down early last season to have surgeries on a hip and a sports hernia, which contributed to subpar performances.
“I feel great,” says Toskala. “I’ve been skating for about a month and I’ve worked out all summer without feeling any pain.”
Leafs fans will be following Jason Allison’s bid to regain an NHL job after sitting out the last two years, and they’ll be curious about Wilson’s decisions on defence pairings.
Tomas Kaberle and Komisarek could wind up together, which is a prospect Kaberle relishes because he craves to have an increased offensive presence.
“He’s a big guy, a stay-at-home defenceman, and I’m the opposite so I don’t see why it wouldn’t work,” Kaberle says of the possible pairing.
Centre Matt Stajan has been a full-time Leaf since 2003, and one of the few remaining who laced ’em up for playoff games with the team. Nobody in blue and white is hungrier than Stajan for success.
“We’re antsy to move this thing forward and come together to make sure we get this team back to where it belongs,” says Stajan. “All of our additions are gritty players who don’t shy away, so as a team we definitely have got tougher and better.
“Now it’s up to us to build chemistry and make things work.”