TORONTO – When news he had been traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs first reached John-Michael Liles over the summer, he started making phone calls. After spending his entire NHL career in Colorado, he was anxious to hear about how life was going to change.
“I was able to talk to Darcy Tucker a bit, obviously a great figure in Leafs fans’ memories,” said the veteran defenceman. “For me he was a good sounding board to talk to. I actually spoke to him right after I was traded. He’s been a great help for me.
“He kind of just laid it out for me, he said: ‘You’ll love playing here. It’s an unbelievable organization. It’s a great city.’ “
Of course, Tucker was around for the Maple Leafs’ last run of prosperity, a period that has long since faded from view.
The city hasn’t been so kind to hockey players in recent years while general manager Brian Burke completely turned over the roster, showing little patience for those struggling to fit in or make an impact. And with the team now locked in a franchise-worst stretch of six seasons outside of the playoffs, it sounds like there’ll be even more urgency in 2011-12.
“I’m not worried about where we’re going to be in two or three years,” said coach Ron Wilson. “My primary responsibility is making the playoffs this year and getting off to a good start.”
More than anything, the Leafs are hoping to pick up where they left off last season. After enduring a miserable 1-8-3 stretch in October and November, the team climbed back into the Eastern Conference playoff race in the second half while riding the hot hand of goaltender James Reimer, who ascended from No. 4 on the depth chart to claim the No. 1 job.
Reimer signed a US$5.4-million, three-year extension over the summer and must now prove his 37-game audition last year was no fluke.
“Good goaltending goes a long way in our league,” said Wilson. “A great goalie can smooth over a lot of rough edges and make up for mistakes that happen in front of him. If you don’t trust your goalie, your confidence sinks.”
The group in front of him should be better than a year ago. Liles and Cody Franson were acquired in separate off-season deals to add depth to a blue-line that already included Luke Schenn, Dion Phaneuf, Carl Gunnarsson, Mike Komisarek and Keith Aulie.
The Leafs were ranked 24th in goals against last season and are looking for a big improvement in that area.
“I’ve never changed my philosophy, which has been that unless you can keep the puck out of your own net you’re not going to have a championship team,” said Burke. “To me it’s like pitching in baseball. You can have eight Hall of Famers in the field (but) if you don’t have pitching you’re not going to win. In my mind, championship teams start on the back end of the rink.
“I think this group we put together on the blue-line is as competitive as anybody has.”
An area of concern that remains is scoring.
After losing out to the New York Rangers in bidding for free-agent centre Brad Richards, Burke attempted to address a weakness up the middle by signing Tim Connolly and trading for Matthew Lombardi, who was limited to just two games with Nashville a year ago because of a concussion.
Connolly is expected to start the year between Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul on a line that will be counted on to help carry the load offensively. The Mikhail Grabovski-Nikolai Kulemin-Clarke MacArthur unit, Toronto’s best last season with 80 goals between them, remains intact.
“I think we have two lines that will be competing for primary duties on the power play,” said Wilson.
Lombardi was only cleared for contact midway through training camp, but is still hoping to be ready for the regular-season opener against Montreal on Oct. 6. He could play either wing or centre on the third line.
Arguably the biggest change over the summer came behind the bench, where Greg Cronin and Scott Gordon were added to Wilson’s staff after Burke urged his head coach to fire assistants Tim Hunter and Keith Acton. Toronto’s specialty teams have struggled during Wilson’s three-year tenure as head coach—the penalty killing was 28th last season while the power play was 22nd—and the GM felt it was time for some fresh ideas.
The staff gathered at Wilson’s off-season home in North Carolina last month to start discussing strategy.
“I think every coach has some philosophies and beliefs,” said Gordon, a former head coach with the New York Islanders. “You’ve got to try to find what works for you that works for the group. You can’t jam everything home that you believe in to make yourself happy—everything’s got to kind of work together. …
“I think some fresh ideas from Greg and myself to go along with all of the years of experience that Ron has, hopefully it ends up complementing each other.”
The pressure will be on right from opening night.
Wilson’s future is already a hot-button topic in the city—he’s in the final year of his contract—and the Leafs open the season with five consecutive games at Air Canada Centre. Throughout training camp, the team has stressed the need to set the tone for a good season right out of the gate.
“We want to be a playoff team, that’s our goal,” said Phaneuf, entering his second year as captain. “The biggest thing from my experience of playing in the league is you have to get off to a good start and you’ve got to be consistent. You can’t have the week-long (losing) slides or the two-week slides, they really hurt you.”