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New additions bring immediate impact to Maple Leafs

by Dave Lozo
NEW YORK -- These aren't your father's Toronto Maple Leafs. Heck, they aren't even the Maple Leafs of your brother who was born a year before you.

Fourteen players who opened the 2009-10 season with the Leafs are nowhere to be found on this year's roster.

After defenseman Tomas Kaberle -- who is starting his 12th season with the team -- forwards Nikolai Kulemin and Mikhail Grabovski and defenseman Luke Schenn are the second-longest tenured Leafs as they start their third season with the club.

The sweeping change brought about by General Manager Brian Burke has resulted in an influx of new faces, and many of them have had a hand in the team's 3-0-0 start this season. It's a welcome change from last season's 0-7-1 beginning that submarined the team's playoff hopes before Halloween.

"The difference between last year and this year, we sort of hung on and dwelled on those losses last year and it sort of snowballed and we got ourselves into a huge hole and we couldn't dig ourselves out," said defenseman Mike Komisarek, whose Leafs will look to go to 4-0 against the New York Rangers on Friday night. "This year, even though it's going the other way, I don't think we're sitting back and dwelling on our wins. We're focused on our next game. Things are going well. Guys are loose and guys are confident. We believe in each other. But we're not really sitting back and dwelling on our record because it's a long year."

Goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere, picked up in a trade last season that sent one-time 40-goal scorer Jason Blake to the Anaheim Ducks, has been the anchor in net the Leafs have sorely missed in recent years. Giguere is 2-0-0 with a 1.51 goals-against average and .951 save percentage. He is the first Leafs goalie to start a season 2-0 since Curtis Joseph started 3-0 in 1999-2000.

Vesa Toskala had been the man between the pipes for the past two-plus seasons, but his .894 save percentage left much to be desired. He was also in the trade for Giguere, who brings a resume that includes a Stanley Cup championship in 2007 and Conn Smythe Trophy in 2003.
Giguere's 6-7-2 record in 12 games with the Leafs last season didn't win him any Vezina Trophy votes, but his 2.49 GAA and .916 showed there was plenty of life left in his now 33-year-old body. Giguere struggled mightily in Anaheim after his father died in December 2008 and he never regained his form. Jonas Hiller gradually took over the starting job, making Giguere expendable last season.
"It was a new beginning," Giguere said of his rebirth with the Leafs. "We have a bunch of young guys here and they energize you every day. Sometimes all you need is a fresh start somewhere. I appreciate the opportunity to play here and just get a chance. It's nice."

Giguere's relatively new teammates have felt the difference since his arrival in Toronto.

"When you start a game, sometimes not everything is going to go your way throughout the game," Schenn said. "When you get some big saves from Giguere to back us up and get some timely saves, we have a lot of confidence back there."

"With Jiggy, he's an NHL veteran and Stanley Cup winner," Komisarek said. "There's no other goalie that works harder than him. Guys see that, and guys are pushing each other. It has a calming effect on our entire team."

Schenn and Komisarek also praised goaltender Jonas Gustavsson, who made 25 saves in the Leafs' 4-3 win in Pittsburgh on Wednesday. He made 9 saves in the third period when the Leafs were on the ropes defending a one-goal lead. The 25-year-old known as "Monster" is a butterfly goaltender, as is Giguere, so it doesn't hurt to have the veteran around to both push him and teach him some things about the position.

"He plays so calm in the net and that's something I've tried to do," Gustavsson said. "He's able to do that because he's always in the right place. He can move the feet and that's why everything looks so simple when he plays. That's something I watch."

It's been much of the same story offensively.

Seven of the team's 12 goals this season have been scored by new acquisitions. Clark MacArthur leads the team with 4 goals. Tim Brent has 2 goals and Kris Versteeg also has a goal. MacArthur was a free-agent acquisiton, Versteeg was poached in a trade with the salary-cap-strapped Chicago Blackhawks and Brent spent just about all of last season with the AHL's Toronto Marlies after tearing a pectoral muscle during a Leafs preseason game. Right wing Colby Armstrong is another new face, although he's yet to register a point this season.

So far, finding chemistry among so many new players hasn't been a problem.

"We're still building chemistry and building camaraderie, but I like where the team's going," Komisarek said. "You ask anyone on our team with Armstrong and Clarkie and Versteeg, these guys have come in and just fit right in. Guys enjoy spending time with each other outside the rink and it shows on the ice. Guys are competing and battling for each other. Those guys are quite the characters."

"The difference between last year and this year, we sort of hung on and dwelled on those losses last year and it sort of snowballed and we got ourselves into a huge hole and we couldn't dig ourselves out. This year, even though it's going the other way, I don't think we're sitting back and dwelling on our wins. We're focused on our next game."
-- Mike Komisarek

"I think the big thing is, guys care about each other a lot," Schenn said. "We're pretty close off the ice. Guys want to be around each other and hang out. This is the closest group since I've been here for sure. I think that's a big part of it."

The biggest change came in the middle of last season when the Leafs acquired defenseman Dion Phaneuf from the Calgary Flames. The Leafs went 10-5-2 in their last 17 games and 13-10-3 after Phaneuf joined the team. This summer, the 25-year-old was named captain after no one held the title following the departure of Mats Sundin two seasons ago.

Phaneuf is the Leafs' ice-time leader in the early going at 23:41 per game and his presence in the locker room has brought about a change in the team's attitude.

"He brings so much energy. Times when I'm at my highest energy level, that's when he's at his lowest," Gustavsson said. "He works hard every day and just keeps us going. He means a lot for us."

The Leafs aren't planning their day with the Stanley Cup after just three wins. They're just focused on getting No. 4 Friday night against the Rangers.

"It's a long season," Komisarek said. "Last season was a long and rocky road. It's just a matter of staying calm and not getting too high and not getting too low."

Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo
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