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Maple Leafs trying their best to move forward

by Dan Rosen

TORONTO -- A new era dawned on the Toronto Maple Leafs when they reported for training camp Thursday, but aspects of the recent past remain.

Despite a remade front office and a message of new hope, the majority of the day was spent answering for the sins of the past, particularly missing the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season, and sidestepping fresh controversies created before the 2014-15 team even took the ice for the first time.

"There's a tremendous amount of scrutiny that takes place," coach Randy Carlyle said. "We understand that. That's the education that we're trying to bring to our players, that this isn't easy. But no one said it was easy to play in the NHL. It's difficult. And there are days that are more difficult than others."

Thursday was difficult at times when Maple Leafs new and old arrived at MasterCard Centre for physicals and other off-ice activities before taking the ice Friday.

Leading scorer Phil Kessel found himself in a controversy not of his doing after a report in the Toronto Star said assistant coach Steve Spott was quoted, by unnamed sources, saying Kessel hates his coaches and won't do all the things asked of him. According to the report, Spott made the comments recently at a clinic for local coaches.

"I have opinions, but I have nothing to do with how this team is run, coached or any of the systems, no matter what you guys (the media) think," Kessel said, doing his best to defuse the situation.

Spott said his comments about Kessel were taken out of context.

"People had asked me earlier what I thought the biggest adjustment would be going from the head coach of the Toronto Marlies to an assistant coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs," Spott said. "I just found that out real quick."

The Kessel situation was only the beginning. Attention soon shifted to the late-season collapse, when the Maple Leafs lost 12 of their final 14 games and tumbled out of playoff position.

The Maple Leafs now have a new group of executives, except for general manager Dave Nonis. Brendan Shanahan is the man in charge and as president has delivered fresh blood and new ideas throughout the front office. Toronto also has two new assistant coaches, Spott and Peter Horachek; a new philosophy for how to play; and several new players. Heck, they even have a new public relations staff.

But, as they found out Thursday, none of that will buy them any leeway in this hockey-mad market.

"I'm pretty certain there are a lot of people [around the NHL] speaking today in front of crowds of two and three," Nonis said. "It is going to be different in Toronto, it always is, but that's a great part of it too. Our players understand, even the young ones understand what it's like to be here. Jake Gardiner and Morgan Rielly, they know what it's like to be in Toronto."

Veteran coach Carlyle knows the challenges Toronto presents. He faces the media every day during the season, and with Shanahan taking over there is some thought Carlyle is on the hot seat even though he received a two-year contract extension after last season.

"How a team plays is always a reflection of your coach," Nonis said. "At some point you look at how the team plays and you say, 'Is a coach having the impact that's needed?' I don't really think that matters if a coach is on a one-year or a two-year deal if you don't think he's getting through.

"We think that Randy is a very good coach. Our players think that Randy is a very good coach. We think that he's going to get the most out of this group. With the addition of the two assistants, a bit of a different dynamic, we're very comfortable that this is a quality coaching staff that's going to maximize the potential of this team."

Carlyle said the controversies don't matter, victories do.

"The issue is we need to win more hockey games than we did last year for sure," he said. "You're always going to be challenged whether you're going to be able to sell your product, what you're selling, what your players are buying. That's the issue."

Part of challenge facing Carlyle is to get power forward David Clarkson back on track after his forgettable first season in Toronto. Clarkson signed a seven-year, $37.5 million free agent contract in the summer of 2013, moving from the New Jersey Devils to his hometown team. He served a 10-game suspension at the start of the season and finished with 11 points in 60 games.

"I'm ready to hit the reset button and I'm excited for what's ahead," Clarkson said. "The game of hockey is a big confidence thing, and that's something you've got to go out there and find. I'm not really thinking about last season. I'm not worried about it. Was it fun to go through? No, but you've got to go out there and become better. That's what I tried to do this summer."

Clarkson might as well have been speaking for the Maple Leafs as a whole as they try to get over the way last season ended.

"It's probably not the right mentality to just say, 'I'm over it, we'll focus on the next year,'" forward Joffrey Lupul said. "There are things we didn't do last year that other teams did and that's why we were watching. I believe 15, 20 games left we were fighting for the division and then a month later you're watching teams play that you felt like you were probably better than for the most part of the year. So, I think it would probably be a mistake to say last year is last year and there is nothing you can take from it."


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