TORONTO – Mixed in amongst the nerves and excitement as the Toronto Maple Leafs reported for training camp was an emotion rarely seen on Day 1 of a NHL season.
“There’s a lot of concern,” Leafs coach Randy Carlyle said Sunday.
Concern about the lack of time to get ready for a condensed 48-game schedule. Concern about how best to evaluate which of the 31 players in camp should be in the lineup next Saturday night at the Bell Centre in Montreal. Concern about finding a way to end the NHL’s longest playoff drought.
It’s been a whirlwind week for the Maple Leafs organization, with general manager Brian Burke being replaced by Dave Nonis just days after the end of the lockout, and the pace is only going to pick up.
The message to players as they arrived to the team’s practice facility on Sunday morning surrounded the importance of giving a hard, consistent effort right from the get-go. The Leafs hope that any shortcomings in skill can be made up with enthusiasm.
And with five games scheduled in the first eight days of the season they plan on making an early move in the standings.
“If (the players) don’t understand the importance of the first seven or eight games then they didn’t do very well in math,” said Nonis. “It’s going to be difficult for us to take games off.”
The new Leafs GM made a couple moves as camp opened, but not the one many are expecting. Defencemen Cody Franson and Mike Mottau were each signed to one-year contracts, although Mottau received a two-way deal and can easily be sent to the American Hockey League.
For now, the Leafs appear prepared to go with the goaltending tandem of James Reimer and Ben Scrivens. They are the only two goalies who earned an invitation to camp and bring a combined 83 NHL games to the team’s crease.
“The only issue I would have with our goaltending would be experience,” said Nonis. “It’s not that they’re not quality goalies.”
Rumours will no doubt persist about Toronto’s interest in Roberto Luongo, who reported for duty with the Vancouver Canucks on Sunday. While Nonis acknowledged that he would look at adding veteran players in a trade, he made it clear that he wasn’t prepared to mortgage the future to acquire one.
“We do have some decent building blocks in place and we’re not going to blow them up in order to try to move one step closer,” said Nonis.
After a lockout that stretched over 119 days, most of the players seemed thrilled to be back in a familiar team environment. Winger James van Riemsdyk, acquired in a June trade from Philadelphia, said it felt good to officially be a member of the Maple Leafs.
He spent the lockout skating in Minnesota and grew tired of all the talk that surrounded the labour dispute—with terms like disclaimer of interest, memorandum of understanding and make-whole payments entering the hockey lexicon.
“Those are all SAT words,” said van Riemsdyk. “I’m done hopefully for awhile listening to those types of words. We’re all happy to be playing again.”
The Leafs roster that finished 13th in the Eastern Conference from a year ago remains largely unchanged. In addition to van Riemsdyk, veteran centre Jay McClement was signed in free agency while 18-year-old defenceman Morgan Rielly could also challenge for a job after being selected fifth overall in the draft.
Beyond that, improvement must come from within.
Nikolai Kulemin, who followed a 30-goal season in 2010-11 with just seven last year, seems like a possible candidate. He spent the lockout playing alongside Evgeni Malkin in his hometown of Magnitogorsk and compiled 38 points in 36 games.
Mikhail Grabovski also professes to being in mid-season form after scoring 12 goals for CSKA Moscow in 29 games, the last handful of which saw him playing on a line with Pavel Datsyuk and Alex Radulov.
“I’m ready to play and I have good conditioning,” said Grabovski. “Thanks very much to my team in Russia, they gave me a chance to play when I have this stupid situation when the season’s not started here.”
In all, the Leafs have 18 forwards and 11 defencemen in camp. It will be difficult for any players on the bubble to separate themselves from the pack, especially with no exhibition games scheduled.
“The message is to do what you do best when you get here,” said Carlyle. “We obviously have an assessment on some people and we’re looking for some people to step out of their comfort zone.”
With such a small window to prepare for the season, the Leafs are looking to be creative. Carlyle plans to shift some practices to the Air Canada Centre later in the week in an effort to mimic the playing conditions the team will face once the puck drops for real.
At that point, there will be very little practice time afforded to the team, especially in February when it plays 15 times in just 28 days.
“I don’t think that it’s any different than anybody else,” said Carlyle. “It’s like the schedule. They hand you this schedule and you’re going to have to play it. We’ve been handed these circumstances through the lockout so we’re all going to have to live it.
“We’re going to have to make adjustments and we’re going to try and cover every base we possibly can through the next six days.”