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Leafs feel things are looking up

by Jonas Siegel
TORONTO -- There is a decidedly optimistic feeling around the Toronto Maple Leafs these days.

As the Leafs hit the ice Saturday for the first time, there was a definite sense of swagger, enthusiasm and hope around a club that's missed the playoffs in each of the last five seasons.

"I've got a good feeling about this team," defenseman Tomas Kaberle said. "I think we've got the best team [we've had here] in the last five years."

While Saturday marked the first official day of training camp -- after medical testing on Friday --it was hardly the first day together on the ice for this group. Most of the team has been around the Leafs' practice facility for weeks, skating, scrimmaging, and training for what promises to be an intriguing season ahead.

General Manager Brian Burke didn't make drastic changes to the roster that finished last season 29th overall, but the brash Leafs' boss was able to land feisty winger Kris Versteeg via trade from the Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks as well as free-agent forwards Colby Armstrong, Clarke MacArthur and Mike Brown along with former Red Wings defenseman Brett Lebda. Their impending impact in conjunction with the optimism over a group that finished last season on a high has Phaneuf envisioning playoffs.

"Everyone has their opinion and everyone has the right to that opinion, but we're starting camp feeling very good about the group that we have and very excited about getting things going," new captain Dion After finishing 29 th  in the 30-team League last season, the Toronto Maple Leafs were decidedly optimistic as they opened training camp.f said.

Phaneuf's presence has certainly helped with the jovial mood engulfing the club. Leadership issues lingered in the two years following the departure of long-time captain Mats Sundin, but the loud and often enthusiastic Phaneuf injected a jolt of adrenaline into the dressing room last season steadying the team to a 13-10-3 finish after being acquired from Calgary.

"We have someone like Dion who seems to relish and cherish this role that we've given him," coach Ron Wilson said of the fiery defenseman. "Leadership is as strong as I've seen since I've been here, easily."

"Everybody rolls their eyes when I say that Dion's a very enthusiastic guy, because he comes out [to speak with the media] and looks like he's facing a firing squad…but he never seems to have a bad day with his teammates -- and that kind of enthusiasm is infectious."

His teammates are big fans of the former Flame.

"Big fan of Dion," defenseman Mike Komisarek said. "He talks, he's got that swagger, he's got that confidence but he backs it up and plays hard every night so I respect a guy like that."

Saturday's workout brought with it a noticeable display of speed and the ever-present truculence Burke demands -- some of which was on display during a scrimmage dust-up between Michael Liambis and Jay Rosehill.

"There was a physical edge which you like to see," Phaneuf said. "Guys weren't trying to kill each other but there was definitely a real high compete level. Anytime there's a fight, two guys go at it like that it's good to see.

"Everyone here at camp knows the way we want to play as a team and that's a hard-nosed style, to be a tough team to play against night after night."

Much of that improvement will depend on the performance of what figures to be the backbone of this club -- goaltending and defense.

"There isn't a team in this league that's successful without great goaltending," Wilson said. "That's the most important position and then you can debate after that."

Former Conn Smythe Trophy winner Jean-Sebastien Giguere was named the starter entering training camp, but he'll be pushed hard by second-year man Jonas Gustavsson, who finished a rocky rookie season with a bang, winning seven of his final 10 starts. The pair will be bolstered on the back end by a physically imposing group that includes Phaneuf, Komisarek, former Duck Francois Beauchemin, third-year man Luke Schenn, surprising rookie Carl Gunnarsson, Detroit import Lebda and Kaberle – the team's best puck-mover on the blue line.

"We've got as deep a defense as I've ever had as a coach," Wilson said of a group that also includes experienced NHL defensemen Jeff Finger and Matt Lashoff. "All playoff teams have seven, eight, nine defensemen in their organization they're comfortable with and now we can actually say that ourselves."

"I want our team to be known as a solid defensive team that's tough to play against," Komisarek said. "I want teams hating to come to the [Air Canada Centre] and playing against us in our building. I think we've got the players and the depth to prove that."

Up front, the Leafs will be led by a fitter and noticeably trimmer Phil Kessel. Recovering from shoulder surgery to begin last season, Kessel never really found a comfort zone physically in his first season with the club while still managing to score 30 goals in just 70 games. He could be joined at some point in the middle by top prospect Nazem Kadri (the No. 7 pick in the 2009 Entry Draft), who is expected to compete for a job.

"Everyone's fighting for jobs here," he said. "May the best man win. I know all the guys don't want to be playing in the minors, they want to be playing for the real club, the real Toronto Maple Leafs. You've got some great players here and it's just gonna be a competition. We'll see who comes out on top."

It'll be a busy preseason for Kadri and his teammates. The Leafs will play nine preseason games, including five in five nights beginning on Tuesday against Ottawa.

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