Be-Leaf in Pat

STEVE SIMMONS -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 6:08 AM ET

The inclination is to look around, see all the old players, the brittle players, and the lack of quickness in a brand new game, and worry about the kind of season it will be for the Maple Leafs.

It's easy to peg this team as a non-contender.

But something stops you from doing it: History. Not the long and storied history of old Maple Leaf glory. Just the most recent hockey history of the three Toronto wise men.

It starts, as it always does, with Pat Quinn, the coach. For all there is to wonder about -- his low-tempo practices, his old-school ways, his lack of communication, his mediocre staff -- his record somehow speaks louder than even his burly voice.

Quinn has coached the Leafs for six seasons. They have never finished with fewer than 90 points in that time. Three times they've been over 100. Five times they've been better than 96.

Year after year, criticism after criticism, that can't be an accident. This collection of Leafs players may not deserve the benefit of the doubt, but the coach has earned that much, if not more.

The previous time Quinn coached a team of such low expectations the Leafs won only 45 games, finished with 97 points, lost in the conference championship. He knows better than anyone what is being said about his team and maybe even his job.

This team isn't deep the way previous Leaf teams have been. His job, with Paul Maurice just a few blocks away, is at least physically more in doubt than ever before.

And yet Quinn has been on the job in one city longer than every other NHL coach not named Lindy Ruff. But the challenge this season may be his greatest yet.

If there is one area Quinn has benefited from heading into his seventh Leaf season it has been excellent goaltending. He always has had it with the Leafs. It started with Curtis Joseph, and for as well he performed in Toronto, Ed Belfour has been even better.

Yes, Belfour is 40 years old. We all know that. Yes, he has a wonky back that means he is forever in treatments. But no, there has been no indication that his Hall of Fame skills are diminishing.

Over the same six seasons Quinn has been in charge of the Leafs, Belfour has played from 59 to 63 games each season. In two years in Toronto, his save percentage went up and his goals-against average went down, playing behind a sometimes ordinary Leafs defence.

He is a workaholic and a fierce competitor and that's not about to change. His old coach, Ken Hitchcock, contended that the only bad years Belfour has had came when he was surrounded by personal uncertainty. Usually contract uncertainty.

That represented just two of his 16 NHL seasons: The Leafs are banking their hopes on that number not increasing by one this season.

If Belfour isn't Belfour and suddenly age and his back give out on him at once, the Leafs have basically no chance of making the playoffs. But with Belfour playing to his own standards, this can be a playoff team, albeit closer to eighth place than first.

The third pillar in Leaf land remains Mats Sundin, who begins his 10th season in Toronto and stands as a stark contrast to teammates and fellow centres Eric Lindros and Jason Allison.

He is nothing if not predictable. Of all that has been remarkable in his time as a Leaf, nothing is quite as striking as his durability. In nine years, Sundin has missed 23 regular-season games. By comparison, Peter Forsberg missed 43 games in his latest NHL season.

This season, Sundin will need to be Forsberg-like with his presence, being the best player every night, taking advantage of the offensive opportunities of the new NHL rules, not just being good but being great.

The questions, and there are many around the Leafs, shouldn't centre around Sundin, Belfour and Quinn. They have been accountable. The rest is the great unknown.

Questions worthy of speculation but currently without conclusions.

How well and how many games will Jason Allison play? Same for Eric Lindros? Can a middle of the road NHL defence survive without obstruction? Can a big, slow team be successful in the apparently new NHL?

Pat Quinn says the sky isn't falling -- and while we have reason to doubt his roster, his numbers in Toronto indicate we can't doubt his word anymore.


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