|Toronto Maple Leafs Jean-Sebastian Giguere during a promo shoot at training camp. (Ernest Doroszuk/QMI AGENCY)
If Maple Leafs players are anxious to get down to business after yet another extra-long summer vacation, they won't have long to wait.
When coach Ron Wilson takes to the ice at the Mastercard Centre this morning at 10 a.m., and declares camp open, they best be ready to make a strong first impression.
With a bulky list of 64 players on the pre-season roster, Wilson and his staff don't have time to waste as they go through the two-pronged task of evaluating talent while preparing to avoid another miserable start.
"My plan right now, by the time we get to next Sunday, is to get down to a very manageable group for the last four exhibition games," Wilson said on Friday as the team went through it's annual pre-camp physicals.
"I want to get right down to a workable group for the last 10 to 12 days of training camp so we can be ready when the season starts.
"The good thing for me is that most of the team has been skating for almost three weeks. That enables me to ramp up the intensity in the first practice and scrimmages."
It will certainly be an eventful 19 days leading to the season opener on Oct. 7 when the Leafs play host to the Montreal Canadiens.
The hot and heavy action begins Saturday morning with the team divided into three groups for practices and scrimmages on the first three days of camp.
Beginning next Tuesday, the Leafs leap into five pre-season contests in five nights, allowing Wilson to make good use of the 40-plus bodies who won't be on the roster when camp opens.
The final four games, then, will be used as serious prep time to avoid anything resembling the disastrous 0-7-1 opening to last season. Wilson said he hopes to be down to five lines and eight defenceman at that point, which will also allow management to zoom in on final roster decisions.
"I don't need them tired at the end of training camp. I need them fresh," Wilson said of his veterans.
Because of the condensed schedule, the first handful of pre-season contests might not be too pretty for the paying public. Wilson says he will ice no more than the league-mandated eight roster players for the first five games. Both defenceman Tomas Kaberle and No. 1 goaltender J-S Giguere, for example, will play in just one of the first five contests.
(The league criteria includes anyone who had played 30 NHL games the previous season, a goalie who dressed for 50 games or played in 30, a first-round draft pick or anyone who has played 100-plus big-league games in his career.)
As for training camp battles, Wilson expects that rookies Nazem Kadri, Jerry D'Amigo and big German Marcel Mueller all have to be given a serious look at cracking the lineup. The top six defence is, for the most part, set but could see a change while the battle for the final three forward spots could generate some interest
"Who knows if Nazem Kadri can make the team?" Wilson said of the player likely to generate the most interest in camp. "It's going to be up to him over the next three weeks."
About to enter his third year as Leafs coach, Wilson is not one to issue bold predictions. But after a two-season purge of veterans, the coach believes there is reason for optimism.
"We've got good goaltending and we've got as deep a defence as I've had (here) as a coach," Wilson said.
"We pretty much in the last year have revamped our roster. We've still got a long ways to go to be considered a bona fide Stanley Cup contender, but we truly believe we have what it takes here to contend for a playoff position."