TORONTO – Like the surprise in the Cracker Jack box, no one’s too sure what you’ll get with the Toronto Maple Leafs this season.
Fans just hope it’s better than the year before. And the year before that. And the year before that.
But the signs aren’t too promising. GM Brian Burke is gone. Roberto Luongo hasn’t arrived. There have been minimal changes to the team that went 35-37-10 and finished 13th in the East.
Toronto won just 10 of 33 games after the all-star break.
James van Riemsdyk came over from the Flyers in a June trade that reunited defenceman Luke Schenn with younger brother Brayden in Philadelphia. Matthew Lombardi was shipped to Phoenix and Tim Connolly, another veteran forward, placed on waivers.
“Well that’s what we’re going to find out,” captain Dion Phaneuf said when asked if he has a sense of how good the 2013 Leafs might be. “We’re working towards getting off to a good start.
“I think we’ve been putting in a lot of good work here. I think our team looks good on the ice. The speed of our practices, the speed of the (Wednesday’s scrimmage) was an up-tempo style that we want to play.
“It’s going to start really quick. Saturday night comes very fast. So we’re looking forward to it.”
Job 1 for head coach Randy Carlyle is fixing a porous defence. Toronto finished 29th in the league last season in goals against (264). Only Tampa (281) was worse.
Perhaps the good news is the once proud franchise can only get better after a season with ended with a public apology from owners Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment
“We have fallen short of everyone’s expectations, and for that we are sorry,” MLSE said in a newspaper ad. “We take full responsibility for how this team performs on the ice and we make no excuses.”
And yet still Toronto fans come.
While the Florida Panthers offer $7-a-seat season tickets, the Leafs web site offers a “Join the Waiting List” tab in its ticket section. The price of a discounted Panthers ticket probably won’t get you a cold one at the Air Canada Centre.
The Leafs extended an olive branch to fans by making Monday’s home opener a freebie for more than 15,000 season ticket-holders. Another 1,000 game tickets will be given away.
While Carlyle looks to up the intensity and focus on the ice, he is also trying his best to change the culture of a team that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2003-04.
Carlyle took over the slumping team on March 3 with 18 games left last season after Burke fired Ron Wilson in the midst of a 1-9-1 run.
“This is akin to an 18-wheeler going off a cliff,” the then-GM said of the team’s descent in the standings in announcing the coaching change.
Carlyle debuted in Montreal with a 3-1 win but the Leafs lost their next five games and the new coach finished with a 6-9-3 record.
The lockout has robbed Carlyle of valuable time to work with his team.
But the new regime is working hard to make changes.
Slogans such as “Mental Durability,” “Make Today Count” and “Burn the Boats” adorn the Leafs dressing room at their practice facility.
Carlyle declined to detail the story behind “Burn the Boats,” saying some things should remain in the dressing room.
“We believe that there are some things that we can always refer back to,” Carlyle said. “And when you start trying to build a culture, we’re not any different than anybody else, there are power of positive thinking (tools), there are things that you try to do to bring the group back when adversity strikes.”
But goalie James Reimer spilled the beans in an interview with TSN radio.
“He (Carlyle) had a story about people crossing the sea to take the treasure,” said Reimer. “When they got there, they burned their boats so they either had to take their treasure or die. That’s what ‘Burn the Boats’ means.”
Reimer, whose season was derailed by a head injury last year, and Ben Scrivens are the goaltending options, while fans debate the merits of adding Luongo—and whether Dave Nonis taking over from Burke as GM may ease trade negotiations with the Canucks.
Reimer is healthy again but Scrivens has the advantage of being in mid-season form after playing for the AHL Marlies during the work stoppage.
Toronto is hoping that it will benefit from having had some of its players stay active during the lockout.
Leafs point to Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin as looking sharp after their time in the KHL.
Forward Nazem Kadri, the Leafs’ first-round pick in 2009, had eight goals and 18 assists in 27 games with the Marlies and seems to welcome playing under Carlyle.
The team will look to familiar faces in Phil Kessel, Tyler Bozak and Joffrey Lupul to provide offence with high expectations also for van Riemsdyk.
Van Riemsdyk’s training camp took a painful turn when he suffered a bruised right foot from a Mike Komisarek shot. But coming off a season that saw him break his left foot, the prognosis was positive.
Question marks include the status of talented young defenceman Jake Gardiner, looking to rejoin the team after suffering a concussion playing for the Marlies. For Gardiner, the question seems to be more when than if.
The fate of talented junior Morgan Rielly is also up for debate. The Leafs can use the Moose Jaw defenceman for five games before having to decide whether to return him to the WHL.
The weekend trip to the Bell Centre is a return to the scene of the crime, in terms of the finale to last year’s disappointing season. Toronto’s seventh straight campaign without a glimpse of the post-season ended with a 4-1 loss in Montreal.
“The bottom line is we’ve got to—as a team—put a better product on the ice and play better as a group,” said Phaneuf.