TORONTO – There was no need for introductions on the first day of the Toronto Maple Leafs training camp.
In many ways, it was like any other day at the team’s practice facility, where players have already been skating together for a couple weeks in preparation for what promises to be a crucial season for the club.
“I’ve never seen anything like it before,” veteran goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere said Friday as players underwent medicals. “Everybody was in town early this year. It’s good to see. I think we’re excited about the upcoming season, we all have a lot to prove.
“It really feels like we’ve been in training camp for two weeks already.”
At this point, the Leafs can use any edge they can get. The franchise is one of just two in the NHL that hasn’t qualified for the playoffs since the lockout—Florida is the other—and everyone from GM Brian Burke to coach Ron Wilson to captain Dion Phaneuf believes the drought should end this spring.
Wilson took note of how much skating the players have done together in recent weeks and expects the intensity to be high for the first organized on-ice session Saturday. About to embark on his third season in Toronto, Wilson seems enthusiastic about his roster.
“We truly believe that we have what it takes here to contend for a playoff position,” he said. “We’ve seen after last year (with Philadelphia) that you can get into the playoffs on the last night in a shootout and end up in the Stanley Cup final.
“We’ve got good goaltending, we’ve got as deep of defence as I’ve ever had as a coach and an exciting group of forwards.”
Burke didn’t make any sweeping changes over the summer. He essentially added defenceman Brett Lebda and forwards Kris Versteeg, Colby Armstrong, Clarke MacArthur and Mike Brown to a young core that put together a 9-3-1 stretch in March.
Nazem Kadri might also find himself in that mix. The 19-year-old centre enters training camp with the best chance of the youngsters to earn a spot in the lineup when the Leafs open the regular season against Montreal on Oct. 7.
There will be a heavy focus over the next few weeks on getting off to a strong start. An 0-7-1 stretch to begin last season essentially sealed the team’s fate on the way to a 29th-place finish.
A major difference this time around will be having the goaltending duo of Giguere and Jonas Gustavsson—the since-departed Vesa Toskala struggled with the No. 1 duties—and sniper Phil Kessel from the get-go.
Kessel sat out the first 12 games last season while recovering from shoulder surgery and went on to lead the team with 30 goals in 70 games. He’s expected to be the offensive catalyst once again but hasn’t set any specific goals.
“Win games, that’s it,” 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.”
Toronto opened training camp with 64 players and most will be needed to help get through the exhibition schedule. The team plays pre-season games on five consecutive nights starting with Tuesday’s opener against Ottawa.
After that stretch wraps up, Wilson hopes to cut the roster down to 15 forwards, eight defencemen and three goaltenders.
“I want to get right down to a workable group for the last 10 to 12 days of training camp,” he said.
By then, the roster will be starting to take shape.
There should be a healthy battle for jobs on the blue-line—with Lebda, Carl Gunnarsson, Jeff Finger and Matt Lashoff likely competing for the final two spots—and among the forwards as well.
Defenceman Tomas Kaberle, the only current roster player with playoff experience in a Leafs sweater, believes the team is finally headed in the right direction. After hearing his name in trade rumours over the summer, he’s thrilled to be back for what he expects to be a breakthrough season.
“I think we’ve got the best team (we’ve had) in the last five years,” said Kaberle. “We just have to show it on the ice, that’s the main thing. We can all talk off the ice but you have to bring it on the ice as well.”
Added Wilson: “The proof’s in the pudding when you start playing.”
The opening day of training camp was all about getting through medical testing.
Players emerged from the room where the team conducted intense tests on stationary bikes dripping in sweat and gasping for breath. When Giguere came out, he exclaimed “the worst day of the year is over.”
“It’s the anticipation,” he explained. “I wasn’t even onthe bike and my heart rate was already at 125. I just get kind of nervous. I’ve been doing this for 15 years and it still doesn’t get any better.
“You want to show the organization that you’re ready for the season, you want to show them that you worked out during the off-season and did what you had to do to get ready.”