Skip to main content

Maple Leafs prepared to embrace underdog role as training camp opens

TORONTO - Almost nobody is giving the Toronto Maple Leafs a chance this season and that's just fine with the guys who play for the team.

They don't mind that interim GM Cliff Fletcher thinks rocky days lie ahead. They have no problem with being labelled a bunch of castaways and unproven talents. There's no issue with pundits predicting a last-place finish.

Yes, you can officially start calling this year's version of the Maple Leafs a willing underdog, but know that it comes with an important caveat - they'll only play the part to a point.

"Our whole dressing room believes we can do a lot better than people are giving us credit for," said forward Matt Stajan. "That's fine. We'll play that role.

"It's a little different than people having high expectations. We have nothing to lose, we're going to go out there and play as hard as we can and hopefully prove everybody wrong."

The Maple Leafs reported to training camp Friday morning and were put through a series of medical exams and fitness tests.

Players both old and new are well aware of the low expectations that have been placed on the rebuilding team after a busy off-season. It's the first time in 14 years that Mats Sundin wasn't around for the start of camp and mainstays like Darcy Tucker and Bryan McCabe weren't anywhere to be found either.

In their place were guys like Jamal Mayers, Ryan Hollweg, Mike Van Ryn and Jeff Finger - all potentially useful players, but not a star in the bunch.

Even Stajan enters training camp as something of an underdog. He won't turn 25 until December but suddenly finds himself as one of the longest-serving players on the team - and one unsure of his exact role.

It had to have stung a little when Fletcher said that the Leafs will enter the season with Nik Antropov as their only true top-six forward. Stajan believes he can capably fill one of those spots and thinks other on the team can, too.

"We're going to have to play as a team to win hockey games, we know that," he said. "We don't have a top-flight guy like Mats Sundin. We have a lot of good players that can score goals and we're going to have to play a good system.

"I think everybody's excited for the challenge."

They'll certainly get that from new head coach Ron Wilson.

He's known for getting a lot out of rebuilding teams and plans to do it again this season with strict attention to defence. It's probably the best place to start given the Maple Leafs were among the worst teams at keeping the puck out of their net last season.

His players should also be on notice because Wilson isn't afraid to tell it like it is.

"I'm not going to throw anybody under the bus but if we stink, I'm going to say it," he said. "If our group's not blocking shots, I'm going to say it.

"I'm going to tell you the way I feel."

It could make for an interesting season in Toronto, especially if the team struggles as many have suggested it will.

Some of the new faces in the lineup are intent on making sure that doesn't happen.

Mayers spent his entire career with the St. Louis Blues before being acquired by his hometown Maple Leafs in a June trade. The 33-year-old winger is expected to bring some leadership and a physical game that was sorely lacking a year ago.

He's been in town for a few weeks and has heard enough about how bad things are going to go this season.

"I've already got a chip on my shoulder about it," said Mayers. "We've just got to take a step back and realize that we've got a lot of growing to do as a team."

The clock is already ticking.

Wilson will supervise on-ice workouts Saturday, the first exhibition game is Monday against Buffalo and the regular season begins in Detroit on Oct. 9.

Fans looking for optimism can start with young forwards like Mikhail Grabovsky, Nikolai Kulemin and Jiri Tlusty. The absence of skilled veterans means that those players will be given an opportunity to carry the load - and one or more of them might thrive in that position.

An older guy like Van Ryn might also experience a renaissance on the blue-line.

The 29-year-old was once a highly touted prospect who has battled injuries recently. He's had surgery on both wrists but is feeling great after playing just 20 games last season and taking the rest of the time to recover.

Van Ryn essentially embodies the spirit of a team that feels it's capable of more than many think.

"Sometimes you like to be the underdog," he said. You don't really have any pressure to play, you just go out and do your job. It kind of even pushes you a little more too.

"I have no problem with people saying that. I don't think anyone does."


Jake Oettinger

Why Short-Term Deals Are Better Gambles for NHL Goalies

Adam Proteau argues that the consequences of signing a goalie long-term can hurt a franchise much more than gambling on a short-term contract.

Andrei Kuzmenko

Andrei Kuzmenko Shines in a Conflicting Canucks Season

Andrei Kuzmenko turned his career year in the KHL into an NHL contract. As Tony Ferrari explores, he's now showing promise as a strong two-way forward.

Frank Boucher, Bill Cook, Bun Cook

From the Archives: The Rangers World Premiere in 1926

Madison Square Garden wanted their own NHL team to capitalize on the popularity of New York's original squad. As Stan Fischler details, the Rangers were born.