TORONTO – Even on the first day of training camp, the sense of urgency was evident.
As a sprawling list of 70 players reported for medicals with the Toronto Maple Leafs on Friday morning, coach Ron Wilson made it clear that many of them shouldn’t get too comfortable. He plans to cut the group to 40 in a matter of days and should have it at 26 or 27 within a week.
“I’m cutting through all the BS here and getting right down to the NHL players,” said Wilson. “I’m not worried about where we’re going to be in two or three years. My primary responsibility is making the playoffs this year and getting off to a good start.”
With a playoff drought that stretches all the way back to 2004, it’s little wonder why there is so much internal pressure to take a step forward this season.
The camp started on an optimistic note with general manager Brian Burke announcing an US$18-million, five-year deal with defenceman Luke Schenn following a long summer of negotiations. The sides discussed both short- and long-term deals and struggled to agree on what he should be paid.
“It doesn’t mean the player was being greedy and it doesn’t mean the team was being parsimonious,” explained Burke. “It’s a case where you have to go through this process sometimes to get to the right number.
“It was a lengthy process, it was a difficult process, but I’m really happy where we are and I believe Luke is too.”
Schenn was drafted fifth overall by the Leafs in 2008 and jumped directly to the NHL. Still only 21, he is just two games behind forward Nikolai Kulemin for the franchise’s longest-tenured player.
They’ve been witness to a lot of change in a short amount of time and Schenn believes the Leafs have finally found the right mix to crack the top eight in the Eastern Conference.
“Since I’ve been here, this is definitely the most competitive we’ve been here so far,” he said. “There’s been great moves (this summer) and a whole bunch of turnover in the past three years since I started here. There’s no question that I think everyone’s excited and optimistic going into every year, but this year definitely feels a lot different.”
The Leafs appear strongest on the blue-line. John-Michael Liles and Cody Franson were added in off-season trades to a defensive corps that includes captain Dion Phaneuf, Keith Aulie, Schenn, Carl Gunnarsson and Mike Komisarek.
Burke is counting on the play of that group and No. 1 goaltender James Reimer to help the team improve on its goals against. Toronto was tied for 24th in that department last season.
“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.”
Up front, centre Tim Connolly was signed to anchor the No. 1 line between Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul. Another new face is Matthew Lombardi, who was limited to just two games in Nashville last season because of a concussion and isn’t sure yet if he’ll be healthy enough to start the season.
Barring an unexpected injury, the camp isn’t expected to feature many battles for jobs—with Nazem Kadri and Matt Frattin likely vying for a winger role on the third line and Darryl Boyce and newcomer Philippe Dupuis trying to fill the fourth-line centre spot.
It promises to be a typically busy couple weeks for Wilson’s team. Starting with the exhibition opener against Ottawa on Monday night, the Leafs will play eight pre-season games in 13 days before opening the regular season at home to Montreal on Oct. 6.
“Your camps often have to do with scheduling, which is something I really can’t control,” said Wilson. “We play on Monday night. We’re sitting here and it’s Friday—two, three days that we’re on the ice. There’s not much you can do in terms of preparation.”
Instead, the Leafs are hoping to pick up where they left off last season.
From the time Reimer was given his first NHL start on Jan. 1, Toronto went 24-15-7 and climbed into the playoff race. The team ended up 10th in the Eastern Conference with 85 points—eight back of the eighth-place New York Rangers.
“We have to take the good and the bad from last year and we have to learn from both,” said Phaneuf. “We have use the good and learn from the bad. The biggest thing that hurt us is that we had a bad month (early in the season) that we couldn’t recover from.”