The Toronto Maple Leafs are one of only two teams that haven't made the playoffs since the 2004-05 work stoppage. After a late-season run brought them close last spring, captain Dion Phaneuf is eager to get started and end the drought.
"That's why we play the game. You don't just play the game to be done in April. Everyone plays to win, to give yourself a chance to win, and you don't have a chance to win if you're not in the playoffs," he told NHL.com during the annual Player Media Tour. "That's where we want to get, and that's where we have to get. We were close last year; we weren't eliminated until there were two games left in the season. We had a good run. We played hard, but we couldn't make up the ground we lost at the start of the season."
With a revamped roster that includes former Calgary teammate Matthew Lombardi, Phaneuf says the Leafs need to get off to a good start -- but adds that they can't let up."
"Getting off to a good start is important," he said. "But you can't just get off to a good start and then fall off. You've got to keep it going -- you have to be consistent. You can't have these extreme highs and extreme lows -- win three and lose four. You've got to be consistent. That's what we've got to do this year to make the playoffs."
One good thing for Phaneuf is that he's completely recovered from the midseason leg injury that cost him 16 games and slowed him even after he returned.
"It was awful," he said of the first major injury of his NHL career. "It was something that I'd never experienced. I've been hurt at the end of years and had the summer to rehab and get ready for the next year. But having a major injury is something that was not a lot of fun to go through. It was a very serious injury, one that took a lot more out of me than I expected. I probably tried to come back too early. It was a major injury that took a lot of time to heal."
It's no secret that the Nassau Coliseum, one of the NHL's oldest facilities, is not exactly a selling point when the New York Islanders are trying to recruit free agents and keep their young talent. But forward Michael Grabner says Long Island has a lot going for it.
"It is," Grabner said when asked if the Island was nicer than he had expected. "A lot of guys probably see the Coliseum, but once you get to know Long Island, it's pretty good. There's a lot of beaches. You're 40 minutes from New York if you want to go there. I love living out there, and I think people would enjoy it if they lived there for a while. There's a lot to do -- there's not just the area around the Coliseum."
Grabner, who led all rookies last season with 34 goals, will have plenty of opportunity to enjoy Long Island -- he signed a five-year contract with the Isles this summer.
Asked if a lot of players get their sole impression of Long Island from the 40-year-old Coliseum and the hotel across the parking lot where most visiting teams stay, he said, "That's exactly what a lot of people think. But you go 15 to 20 minutes and you've got some beautiful areas -- lot of beaches, lot of parks. It's great to live out there."
When it comes to skating, just call Michael Grabner "The Natural."
The New York Islanders forward won the Fastest Skater competition during the skills competition at All-Star Weekend in January and went on to lead all rookies with 34 goals, becoming a finalist for the Calder Trophy.
He said Thursday that his skating skills just came naturally.
"I've never trained for it," he said. "I did a lot of sprints -- track and field -- when I was in school. I always practiced with older guys when I was in school when I was younger, and I tried to keep up with them. I wanted to be the fastest. That probably helped me.
"But I didn't do any specific training or have any skating coaches or anything. I guess I got lucky."
Grabner is one of just three Austrian-born players in the NHL (Thomas Vanek and Andreas Nodl are the others). Hockey isn't the big sport in his homeland, and Grabner may owe his career on ice to a fortunate accident of geography.
"We lived across the street from the rink," he said. "My mom signed me up when I was 5 because my friends and a lot of people from school were playing. That's how I got into (hockey). I liked it and started to play roller hockey in the summers. After that, I would spend five or six hours a day at the rink. I loved it."
It's about enjoying the moment. It's pretty cool to get that many people together and that excited about hockey to the point they really want you to mess up. They've got a ton of red jerseys and you have to sit back and appreciate people love hockey that much and you are the one out there who gets to play the game. Just try and stick with that respect for the game and also the mentality that for me it's just about entering the fight and seeing how long I can stay in it.