TORONTO – No one is expecting the Toronto Maple Leafs to compete for the Stanley Cup this year, which is ultimately what makes this season so different from any other during the past decade.
Rightly or wrongly, this franchise has fashioned itself a contender every year since Pat Quinn first arrived to become head coach in 1998.
That is, until now.
Interim GM Cliff Fletcher and new coach Ron Wilson have both been very open about that fact already. And their candour really shouldn’t come as a surprise.
After all, the Maple Leafs missed the playoffs the last three seasons and are now without captain Mats Sundin and longtime core players Darcy Tucker and Bryan McCabe. Those departures weren’t followed by a series of quick-fix signings either.
Instead, the key decision-makers in the organization claim they are prepared to be patient while some younger players get the chance to learn on the job.
That showed during the pre-season when the Maple Leafs gave up a late two-goal lead in Buffalo before losing in overtime. Instead of getting frustrated with the team, Wilson got frustrated with some members of the media who expected him to be angry.
“It was an exhibition game – it didn’t bother me at all,” said Wilson. “What bothers me is being asked asinine questions while you’re trying to give young players a chance.
“We’re not going to win the Stanley Cup this year. There’s a news flash for you.”
Since Fletcher replaced John Ferguson in January, it has been clear that the Leafs were turning their attention to the future.
The veteran hockey executive dealt Chad Kilger, Hal Gill and Wade Belak at the trade deadline and bought out the contracts of Tucker and Andrew Raycroft during the summer. He also traded McCabe to Florida, put Kyle Wellwood on waivers and let John Pohl and Andy Wozniewski walk away as free agents.
The Maple Leafs team that opens the regular season in Detroit on Oct. 9 will have at least 10 players in the lineup that weren’t around for last year’s curtain-raiser.
The new faces are a mixture of youngsters and role players. Niklas Hagman, Jeff Finger, Jonas Frogren and Curtis Joseph signed as free agents while Mikhail Grabovsky, Jamal Mayers, Mike Van Ryn and Ryan Hollweg arrived via trades.
Add to that mix former second-round draft pick Nikolai Kulemin and possibly even defenceman Luke Schenn, who was selected fifth overall in June. The plan at the outset of training camp was to send the 18-year-old back to the Western Hockey League but his fine play has given the team reason to reconsider. A decision on Schenn’s future won’t be made until just before the season starts.
Considering the arrivals and departures, the Leafs will probably take a step back in 2008-09.
“You don’t have to be a Rhodes Scholar to know there’s going to be rocky days ahead, tough games, maybe tough stretches,” Fletcher said bluntly on the eve of training camp.
That’s not to suggest that his team is in ruins.
With expectations at their lowest point in Toronto in some time, this could blossom into an unlikely season of hope. One or more of the youngsters might progress at a surprising rate and even if the losses pile up, the chances of getting a lottery pick and drafting Victor Hedman or John Tavares next June will only increase.
The mood around the team has been surprisingly light during training camp. That alone is a welcome change.
“It’s not like big names or big superstars are here now,” said Vesa Toskala. “We’re pretty much everybody on the same level and it seems to be good.
“Everyone is talking to everybody and we’re just getting used to (each other).”
Tomas Kaberle, Pavel Kubina and Toskala will be the closest thing to star players in blue and white at the Air Canada Centre this year – unless, of course, Sundin decides he wants to return.
Toskala is entering his second season in Toronto and the first as the undisputed No. 1 goalie. He’s optimistic that the team can exceed expectations – especially with the positive mood that seems to have been fostered during the pre-season.
“I think it’s going to be a much more relaxed atmosphere here now,” said Toskala. “Everybody might feel more relaxed to speak up and say something if they have something on their mind.
“I think that’s great. That’s how you build good team spirit.”
The most important work will be handled by Wilson and assistants Tim Hunter, Rob Zettler and Keth Acton.
There were only three NHL teams that allowed more goals against than the Maple Leafs last season. That’s one area where Wilson figures to make a difference by fostering a better overall commitment to team defence.
Since arriving in Toronto, he’s repeatedly said that he expects his players to block shots and compete on every shift.
“The only (prediction) is we’ll be a hard-working team,” Wilson said. “That I can guarantee.”