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Looking At The Opening Night Roster

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs
Imagine a movie where you see the ending first.

That, in a nutshell, is the scenario for the Maple Leafs who will travel to Detroit to watch the Wings raise their Stanley Cup banner, Thursday night.

“It may not be a bad idea to watch them raise the banner,” reckoned Leafs coach Ron Wilson Thursday, “as a way of thinking maybe we will be doing something like this in a couple of years.”

He has a point. Good mystery writers pen the conclusion and then do the grunt work of moving backwards to create a narrative.

The Leafs have said loud and long that they will not be winning the Stanley Cup anytime soon. If you had any doubts, they were dispelled when GM Cliff Fletcher told the media he wasn’t sure he had a top six-forward in the lot other than Nik Antropov.

No doubt, however, that a different message is being delivered in the dressing room.
“What I say to you (reporters),” Wilson said Thursday, “is not what I say to the team.”

Opening night, regardless of expectations, is a moment of rebirth and it seems particularly so for a handful of Maple Leafs.

Take Jason Blake, lost last season after a cancer diagnosis. He is back, his treatment has become routine and the doubt and uncertainty that plagued his game seems a million miles away.

“I know what I have to do and I plan on doing it,” Blake said resolutely. That means fewer perimeter shots, more dashes to the net and an increasing role in the leadership of the team.

Wilson inherits a much greener club than his predecessor Paul Maurice, a team with as many as 10 new faces. He insists he will be the model of patience in developing young players such as 18-year-old Luke Schenn, Anton Stralman, Nikolai Kulemin, John Mitchell and Jiri Tlusty. What he will not tolerate is sloppy or indifferent play from veterans.

For 23-year-old forward John Mitchell, the date in Detroit represents a coming of age.

A fifth-rounder in 2003, Mitchell has apprenticed for three seasons with the Marlies. Last season he led the club in regular season and playoff scoring.

“In 1995 there were millions of kids playing hockey and dreaming of playing in the NHL,” he said. “Now, I get to do that, in Detroit, against the Stanley Cup champs. My dream has been fulfilled.”

With Bryan McCabe dealt to Florida, Pavel Kubina approaches this season as his first real chance to be the stud defenceman he dreams of being.

“I like that pressure,” he said. “I want to lead by example, not just in games but in practices and off the ice too.”

Here’s a look at the Leafs prospects for the 2008-2009 season.

Goal: Vesa Toskala and Curtis Joseph. Having beaten out Andrew Raycroft and playing 66 games last season, Toskala delivered ample proof he is ready to be the go-to guy. Anyone who watched him would be convinced the Leafs have one of the best goalies in the Eastern Conference. But his statistics, .904 save percentage and 2.74 goals against average were fair to midland. Still, Toskala has proved he can play well on a good team; he did it for Wilson in San Jose.

Joseph’s poor pre-season probably means very little. Older players often take longer to shake off the off-season rust. Still, Joseph is 41 and if he shows his years too dramatically, the Leafs will need to make a move. The only other notable goalie in the system is Justin Pogge and he is slated for 60 or so games with the Marlies.

Wilson wasn’t especially thrilled with either Toskala or Joseph in the pre-season but vowed not to press for better play until the regular season starts.

Defence: The club’s best position. If rookie Luke Schenn sticks, and there is nothing to suggest he won’t, he will be the most important player developed by the club in years. After a spotty camp, Anton Stralman may start the season in the press box. Just 22, Stralman is also another key element. Jeff Finger, signed in the off-season to stabilize the defence is either the shut-down stay at home defenceman club officials insist he is or an expensive free agent mistake. He will start the season on the sidelines with a minor foot injury. Carlo Colaiacovo looks to piece together an injury free season and deliver on his vast potential. Swedish import Jonas Frogren will play tough and thus will deliver some badly-needed grit. At 30, Tomas Kaberle remains an elegant defender and a prize target for other teams, despite his no-trade contract. Mike Van Ryn, who came over in the McCabe deal and Ian White will be jockeyed in and out of the lineup as necessary.

Forward: Nik Antropov anchors the first line with Jason Blake and Alexei Ponikarovsky. Mikhail Grabovski, a 24-year-old with only 27 NHL games under his belt, looks to be the second line centre with Niklas Hagman, a hit at training camp, and Jiri Tlusty who was not.

Kulemin will play with Dominic Moore and Alex Steen while the fourth line should be comprised off Jamaal Mayers, Matt Stajan and Mitchell. Ryan Hollweg is around to give the team a bit more grit and White can apparently play forward or defence.

Leadership:  The elephant in the room is the hole left by Mats Sundin. The Leafs will use five players and designate three as assistant captains to communicate with officials. Wilson wants the entire team accountable and will insist every player sit by his locker for an interview, win or lose after each game.

“Everyone will be accountable for our team performance,” he said. “If we have to, we will face the music together.”

Outlook: Fletcher and Wilson have managed to lower stratospheric expectations for the team. The key to fan patience will be the development of young players like Schenn and the ability to parlay assets such as Kaberle, Kubina or perhaps even Toskala for reams of prospects.

Do not overlook the possible return of Sundin. If the Leafs overachieve, and with a Wilson coached team this isn’t a real long shot, they may appear attractive enough for the big Swede to return.
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