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10 Reasons Why This Team Is Different

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs
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The Maple Leafs have finished up their pre-season and come Thursday they start shooting with live ammo.

The Leafs beat a team of Detroit scrubs 4-2 at the Air Canada Centre to start the inexorable countdown to Thursday and the opener with the Montreal Canadiens. Clarke MacArthur, Tyler Bozak, Kris Versteeg and Tomas Kaberle scored for the Leafs.  Cory Emmerton and someone named Tomas Tatar scored for Detroit.

The Leafs went 5-3-1 for the pre-season. There were no meaningful injuries. That’s about all you can ask.

“We are coming out of camp relatively healthy,” said Leafs coach Ron Wilson. “I like the kind of mix we have right now. I feel comfortable with what you guys would call the third line. (Tim) Brent, (Colby) Armstrong and (Fredrik) Sjostrom. Our power play, especially our first unit, is scary good right now. We’ve got things we have to fix on our penalty kill but it’s been breakdowns in the back end, not our forwards.”

There will be some final tinkering. John Mitchell and Luca Caputi are fighting for a roster spot, but for now Nazem Kadri will now be a prime-time player with the Marlies. The biggest surprise was the play of the 26-year-old Brent who pushed himself into the NHL after a career of near misses.

But come Monday, the final version of the team will be unfurled and everyone will have to square themselves with the notion that the Leafs are a dramatically different outfit or they are not.

How stupid is that?

You can argue that the Leafs are better, worse or equal to last year’s team. But they are not the same. Not from last year’s team, or for that matter, the year before.

Let’s get some historical perspective.

At the end of the 2008-2009 campaign, the season before last, the Leafs leading scorer was Jason Blake. Next came Alexei Ponikarovsky. Falling in quickly behind were Matt Stajan, Lee Stempniak and Nik Hagman.

Where are you now Boyd Devereaux, Anton Stralman, Jamal Mayers, Vesa Toskala, Brad May, Jonas Frogren and Justin Pogge?

I don’t know if the Leafs will make the playoffs. I suspect they will, but in making a forecast I view five years out of the playoffs the way economists survey the post-meltdown future. By that I mean nervously.

But I will tell you this: these are not the same old Leafs. The only thing this year’s team has in common with last year’s club or any recent edition for that matter is that everyone wears blue.

“People tell me I was traded to the 29th place team,” said Kris Versteeg. “No I wasn’t. I’m playing for a team that is rebuilding.”

“I think everyone knows that this is a new year, a new team,” Captain Dion Phaneuf said. “The past whether it’s five years, thirty years or one year, it’s the past. Every year there are 29 teams that are unhappy and that doesn’t change.”

Just to seal the deal, here are 10 reasons to why this year’s team is markedly different from last year’s team.

1.    This year’s team should be able to kill penalties. Dead last in penalty-killing 2009-2010, the Maple Leafs have made their personnel moves with an eye toward the penalty kill. Mike Brown, Colby Armstrong, Tim Brent, Versteeg and Fredrik Sjostrom who came over last season will dramatically upgrade the penalty kill.  When asked the number one improvement, Phaneuf is steadfast: “we’ve improved our penalty killing.”

2.    Organizational depth. Two seasons ago the club’s best prospect was Juri Tlusty. This year it’s  Nazem Kadri who will begin with the Marlies.  Luca Caputi has enjoyed a good camp, but if he is sent down he will join a whack of players who should be ready for the big club some time this season: Marcel Mueller, Jerry D’Amigo, Juraj Mikus, Keith Aulie and Matt Lashoff.

3.    Pugilism. You may or may not like fighting. I don’t, but since the game sanctions fighting the Leafs have Colton Orr and Mike Brown to handle things with Jay Rosehill just down the road.

4.    Toughness: Forget the fighting for a moment. Brown, Armstrong, Komisarek and Phaneuf are just flat out-mean

5.    Established players. Please feel free to quibble here, but if Phaneuf, Tomas Kaberle, Versteeg and Phil Kessel aren’t front-line talents to you, they are to a sizable constituency of hockey fans. Which one of the big four from two years ago, Kubina, Stajan, Ponikarovsky or Hagman would you want over Phaneuf, Kaberle, Versteeg or Kessel?

6.     Size on defence. The team from two years ago had some size in Kubina, Kaberle and Luke Schenn, then a rookie. But it also featured smallish players such as Stralman, Jeff Finger, Jaime Siefers and the feisty but undersized Ian White. Contrast that to the much larger contingent of Francois Beauchemin, Schenn, Komisarek, Carl Gunnarsson, Phaneuf and Kaberle. It remains to be seen whether this defence corps will be, as Leafs GM Brian Burke insists, one of the top units in the league. There is no arguing that it is more formidable.

7.    The present uniform with the piping around the waist is infinitely more pleasing to the eye. Makes the blue jump out. Ask anyone.

8.    Vesa Toskala. Really?

9.    There are more players who could, maybe even should improve their production: Phaneuf, Mikhail Grabovski, Komisarek, Versteeg, Gunnarsson, Nikolai Kulemin, Tyler Bozak, and Jonas Gustavsson. In past years, the Leafs room smelled a bit of formaldehyde. “It’s a confidence thing,” Bozak said. “When you have a little experience, you do things you would never have tried before.”

10.    There is a captain. Tomas Kaberle is the only player left over from Mats Sundin’s captaincy. After a respectable period of adjustment, the club has a new centerpiece. How Phaneuf reacts to the heightened responsibilities is anyone’s guess but the C on his sweater ends a longstanding debate as to should lead the team.
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