TORONTO – No one is safe and nothing is sacrosanct these days for the Toronto Maple Leafs, from spots in the lineup for long-standing or high-priced regulars to changing goalies just before a shootout.
The club’s roster may have been stripped down and restocked over the summer, but new head coach Ron Wilson is still working to makeover the mindset and culture that lingers in his locker-room from the failed squads of seasons past.
To that end the current group of players need to grasp that ice-time is earned not given, that they should take nothing for granted and that a failure to conform leads right to the pressbox.
“There’s a general understanding now that there’s no sense of entitlement here,” Wilson said after a brisk practice Wednesday, adding later: “To be honest with you, we have a lot of guys who aren’t worried about the W’s, they’re worried about their ice time. Once they get through that, is where we’ll be fine.
“That’s the mentality I’m trying to break.”
Jason Blake, in the second season of a US$20 million, five-year contract, sounds like the next player to discover that the hard way.
The veteran winger found himself demoted to the fourth line in Tuesday’s 3-2 shootout loss versus Anaheim, and Wilson hinted that Blake would be scratched for Thursday’s visit to the Boston Bruins. Ryan Hollweg, set to return from a three-game suspension for cumulative boarding majors, would take his place.
“He might be on the fourth line, he might not be playing, we’ll see,” Wilson said of Blake. “I’d certainly like to get (Hollweg) in there. …
“Hopefully he has learned his lesson and he understands that his next suspension is four (games) or probably a lot longer. … He doesn’t want to hurt the team and I want to make him a little more of a hockey player. He can skate and get in on the forecheck and be a valuable asset for us.”
Blake wouldn’t be the first regular to get benched by Wilson – centre Matt Stajan and defenceman Carlo Colaiacovo have also been scratched while winger Alexei Ponikarovsky faced a brief demotion to the fourth line.
Defenceman Ian White has yet to play in a single game and the blue-line will only get more crowded with Jeff Finger (foot) expected to be ready for Saturday’s home date with Ottawa.
“I will play the guys on any given night who I feel are giving the best effort, who can make a difference when they step out on the ice,” said Wilson. “If a guy isn’t ready to play, that’s inexcusable from my point of view, so you don’t get to play much after that.”
The message is starting to register.
“Be accountable,” said Ponikarovsky. “Every night you have to go out there and prove you have to be on the ice.”
Wilson’s changes go beyond that, too.
He showed a willingness to buck conventional wisdom against the Ducks by subbing in a cold Curtis Joseph for starter Vesa Toskala to handle the shootout.
Joseph entered the game with a 5-3 career shootout record, allowing just eight goals in 32 attempts, while Toskala was 2-9, giving up 18 goals in 35 tries.
It didn’t work – Joseph was beaten on both tries Tuesday – but Toskala clearly grasped the point.
“For sure I have to get better,” said Toskala. “I just have to find a way to give the team a better chance to win those.”
One player the coach has consistently been full of praise for is first-round pick Luke Schenn. Wilson routinely refers to the 18-year-old as their top defensive defenceman and it’s increasingly looking like he’s with the Maple Leafs to stay this season.
Schenn has been living in a Toronto hotel since training camp opened in case he was returned to junior before his contract becomes guaranteed, and asked if he could start looking for an apartment, Wilson replied: “We’ll address that shortly.”
Of the many ways that Schenn has impressed, one that sticks out for Wilson is the way he quickly head-mans the puck, something he’d like to see veterans Tomas Kaberle and Pavel Kubina do more off, rather than skate the puck up looking for an outlet.
“I’ve got to break some bad habits with guys (whose) habits formed by being dominant players in the league before the lockout,” said Wilson. “Post-lockout this team has really struggled playing pre-lockout kind of hockey. Post-lockout is all puck movement, advancing the puck to the quickest guy out there, that’s the process we’re going through.
“It’s why I keep saying, it will take possibly until Christmas time to eradicate all the bad habits and form a bunch of new ones. You can’t do it in a week, you can’t do it in a month. It takes time.”
And even though the Maple Leafs are just 1-2-3 in their first seven games, they already see good reason to buy into what their coach is preaching.
“We were down 2-0, we came back 2-2 and were all over Anaheim for the last two periods, so basically, sometimes you don’t win the games, but you played really good hockey,” said Ponikarovsky. “That’s what gives you hope and helps to build the team. Everybody knows what way we have to play.”