TORONTO – When Vesa Toskala looks around the Toronto Maple Leafs dressing room these days, he doesn’t just see a bunch of young faces. He also sees a group of players that is ready to compete hard each and every day.
That isn’t a quality he felt the team had a year ago.
“It’s fun to see everybody working so hard,” Toskala said after practice on Tuesday. “Now we have players here who want to really improve. And I think that’s important. I didn’t feel we had that last year.
“That’s a change for (the) positive and I think that’s a good thing.”
Change isn’t just a word the Maple Leafs are throwing around on the eve of another season – it’s something they’re truly experiencing. Eleven players that dressed for the opener last October won’t be with the team on Thursday night when this season starts in Detroit.
The latest changes came on Tuesday as interim GM Cliff Fletcher placed forward Boyd Devereaux and defenceman Staffan Kronwall on waivers. If they’re not claimed by another team, Fletcher will have the option to send them to the AHL Marlies.
That probably isn’t something he’s prepared to do with Devereaux, who could provide good depth for another NHL team. The 30-year-old spent the past two seasons in the Maple Leafs organization and essentially lost his job to 23-year-old John Mitchell.
“Those decisions are always difficult because when you get down to the bottom end of the roster like that, the players are pretty close,” said Fletcher. “We opted to go younger as opposed to going with the veteran.”
That statement pretty much sums up the team’s overall strategy.
There are currently 11 players aged 25 or under on the Maple Leafs roster – 10 of whom might play against the Red Wings on opening night. The other, Ryan Hollweg, is suspended for the first two games of the regular season.
The organization is willing to be patient as those young players develop and mature. According to the team’s No. 1 goalie, that shouldn’t require any more patience than was needed in 2007-08.
“I don’t think there can be more mistakes than we made last year,” said Toskala.
The Finn has made the strongest comments about the team’s personnel changes of any of the holdovers. Earlier in the pre-season, Toskala noted the positive change in the team’s dressing room and said he thought it was good that more players would feel comfortable speaking up now.
The youth movement will come with its challenges.
Coach Ron Wilson hopes to keep his players focused on the smaller points of the game rather than the big picture – namely, wins and losses. However, he disagrees with the notion that he’s walking into a situation that resembles an expansion franchise.
“Expansion teams are rarely young, they’re usually old – like last year’s team here,” said Wilson. “That was an expansion team in the realest sense.
“On expansion teams, you don’t get quality young players to work with. I think I have that here.”
The most notable of those is 18-year-old defenceman Luke Schenn, who will start the season in Toronto after having a tremendous training camp.
The Maple Leafs can dress him for nine regular season games before the first year of his contract officially kicks in. That essentially gives the NHL team another couple weeks to decide whether or not he’s done with junior hockey.
“I don’t think I’ve made the team yet,” said Schenn, who signed a three-year, entry-level contract on Tuesday. “I’m just starting the season here and I’ve got to keep proving that hopefully I belong and (that I can) keep getting better.
“It’s just a good start.”
Schenn first learned he was staying with the Leafs while watching TV on Monday.
The Saskatoon native has spent almost all of his free time in a downtown hotel over the past couple weeks. He’s been playing a lot of the “NHL 09” video game with a player he created using his own name.
“I’ve still got a season going,” said Schenn. “I’ve got it in my hotel room right now. (I like) playing Xbox, it kills some free time.”
Now that he’s starting the real season in the NHL, the game’s developers will soon be creating a Schenn character for everyone else to use too.
Mitchell is another guy due for a video game update now that he’s also about to make his NHL debut. He was a big Doug Gilmour fan while growing up and used to wear a No. 93 jersey tucked in the same way as the former Leafs captain.
Gilmour became an assistant coach with the Marlies this season but Mitchell isn’t sad that he won’t be joining his idol in the minors.
“Hopefully he can come up and visit here a couple times,” said Mitchell. “That would be nice.”
He was most excited to share the good news with parents John and Kim, who live a little over an hour away in Waterloo.
Mitchell spent the past three seasons in the AHL and admitted to wondering whether the organization was ever going to give him a chance to move up. Finally, he’s made it.
“I’ve been waiting for this day for a long time,” said Mitchell. “Better a little bit late than never I guess.”
It took a rebuilding situation for the opportunity to arrive. And he’s far from the only one.
Mikhail Grabovski, Nikolai Kulemin, Jiri Tlusty, Anton Stralman and Schenn will each be given more responsibility than they’ve ever had. One day, Leafs management hopes those players form the core of a winner.
“From one perspective, you could say that they’re all going to grow together as a team,” said Fletcher. “That’s what we’re trying to do – we’re trying to build a good young team.
“You have to start somewhere.”