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Ulmer: Leafs Have A New Look

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs

Success is not particularly instructive.

It should be. After all, what should validate a particular course of action more than seeing it work?

But just as often success ties you into a strategy that can’t be adapted when things change.

Now failure, failure is instructive. Achingly, overwhelmingly instructive.

Which brings you around, slowly I admit, to the Maple Leafs.

At first glance they have done little more than shuffle the deck chairs aboard a ship that sank out of the playoffs with 12 losses in its last 14 games.

Same old Leafs. Keep the coach, change everyone else right up to President Brendan Shanahan.

Not so fast, Bub.

Yes, the heart of the team, forwards Phil Kessel, Tyler Bozak, James van Riemsdyk and Joffrey Lupul are back. So too is captain Dion Phaneuf, the goldust twins on defence, Jake Gardiner and Morgan Rielly as well as the effervescent and talented Jonathan Bernier.

It’s worth noting that only one, Lupul, is on the far side of 30.

You start with eight good to very good NHLers. That’s not bad. Ten would be better but Nazem Kadri has not yet quite matured into a front line player and William Nylander will be back in the Swedish Hockey League with Modo. David Clarkson has been that player in the past and is seeking to rebound from a dreadful season. Perhaps you’ve heard.

So the Leafs kept their very good players on the healthy supposition that talent is a wonderful thing to have.

But they did not fall short last season because they didn’t lacked talented players. The Maple Leafs were 14th in goals scored. They pocketed more regular season goals than both Stanley Cup finalists, the New York Rangers and Los Angeles Kings. Kessel and Van Riemsdyk combined for 67 goals last season. Teams with comparable talent levels make the playoffs all the time. That’s parity.

The Maple Leafs swooned because they did not have the depth not to overplay Dion Phaneuf, the fourth line, leaden with the presence of Orr and McClaren, could do nothing but fight. The team never was able to piece together a formidable checking line, the bottom six was slow and there was no experienced defenceman to shepherd Gardiner and Rielly’s development.

All those things have been addressed. How well will be definitively known sometime between Christmas and spring.

In a nutshell, here is the proposition.

You have one group: 37-year-old defenceman Stephane Robidas, speedy centre Mike Santorelli, all purpose forward Daniel Winnik, veteran David Booth, hardrock defenceman Roman Polak, gritty Leo Komarov, polished rearguard Stuart Percy and pint-sized shift disturber Brandon Kozun.

Are they better than Colton Orr, Mason Raymond, Paul Ranger, Carl Gunnarsson, Troy Bodie, Nikolai Kulemin, Jay McClement and David Bolland?

Remember them?

The latter group was in the lineup last October when the Leafs opened their season in Montreal.

The Maple Leafs are demonstrably faster than they were last year. What they lost in Raymond, the only real speedster of the earlier bunch they get back with Santorelli and Kozun. Rielly, empowered by a fine rookie season, is in the blocks from the word go this time.

“I want to carry what I did over to this year,” said Rielly. “I developed confidence as the season went along and I want to bring that to this year from day one.”

Ask Leafs coach Randy Carlyle about the difference between this year’s camp and last year’s and he speaks of speed.

“We played at a higher pace this camp than at the previous one,” he said.

The Leafs, unburdened by a fourth line that often accommodated McClaren and Orr, can now afford more playing time to the bottom six spots in the roster.

“Our third and fourth lines are going to look different than they have in the past,” said GM Dave Nonis. “I think they are probably interchangeable, nine forwards who can move from second line to support line minutes.”

In Robidas they have a player who can school Rielly and Gardiner.

“It sounds cliché but when you are young there is stuff you don’t know,” said Robidas who broke the same leg twice last season but will be ready to play his 856th NHL regular season game, Wednesday.

“For me, I’m an older guy but I think I bring a good work ethic and how I handle myself on and off the ice, I take pride in that. No one is entitled to anything. I believe in that very strongly.”

Robidas is also expected to log considerable ice time alongside Phaneuf and allow the Leafs captain to concentrate on generating more offence while shaving his ice time.

Of the bunch, Kozun and Komarov, should be the most entertaining. Komarov, signed to a four-year deal, upped the Leafs compete level in 2013 and his bite was never truly replaced.

Kozun, just five-foot-eight, darts about the ice like a waterbug in a tea cup and was one of the best Leaf forwards at camp.

Nylander flashed NHL speed but lacked finish and experience so his departure wasn’t a shock

“He showed he had the skill set to play at the NHL pace in the exhibition,” said Carlyle. “He has to get stronger and he has to find a way to score on his opportunities. He has to stay the course. That’s a good league and he has to prove he can develop at a higher level.”

“I was happy with my camp. I learned a lot of stuff these three weeks but I just have to keep moving forward,” Nylander said.

The case for Viktor Loov is a little more difficult to discern. The Leafs liked the smooth-skating Loov who has continually distinguished himself as a fierce open ice hitter but his playing rights have to be worked out with Swedish hockey officials.

You can argue the Leafs have taken a long lunge into the present. Shanahan has designated an analytics department and reshaped the hockey side.

Still, in keeping the corps of the team intact, Shanahan and Nonis seem to have operated with a scalpel instead of a sledgehammer.

But here’s the other thing about change. When little measures don’t work, the way is cleared for more drastic moves. The cheerful, if ill-fated advance into the 2013 playoffs is just a hazy memory. There is no plan to be beholding to: certainly the jettisoning of Orr and McLaren underscore a move away from the era of truculence and a further embrace of actual talent.

The Leafs, like everyone else, will thrive on the worthiness of their 20-man mix. That could mean good news not just for the bottom six forwards and last defensive pairing but for the guys above who do the heavy lifting.

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