Shaking off the rust

LANCE HORNBY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:51 AM ET

Their league and their lives have changed dramatically, their team picture is outdated and they're skating downwind of the CNE Horse Palace on a re-configured rink with end board trapezoids and an 'invisible' centre red line.

But the workplace never looked so good to the Maple Leafs, who get back to business at Ricoh Coliseum this morning after a year-long NHL lockout.

"We can't wait to get started," general manager John Ferguson said, as he hands a new-look team to coach Pat Quinn's staff.

Quinn's biggest concern is scraping off a year's rust for many players and bringing the whole team quickly up to game conditioning.

"We saw the conditioning element at the Team Canada camp (in August) with guys who didn't play," Quinn said. "There's no way of speeding that up."

Amid all the cynicism about pro hockey, a timely Boy At Leafs Camp story would be welcome about now. That could be Swedish newcomer Alex Steen in the role. He already has made an impression at the rookie tournament in Ottawa.

"We're really interested in seeing what he can do in a North American camp," Ferguson said.

Also, defenceman Bryan Marchment and winger Steve Thomas are here on a tryout basis to extend their careers.

The other challenges for Quinn in this three-week training camp are clear; adapt to the NHL's new zone dimensions, find qualified wingers for centres Mats Sundin, Eric Lindros and Jason Allison and get the roster down to 23 for opening night on Oct. 5. Oh yes, and don't go zebra hunting the first time confusion arises about what is and isn't a penalty. There are dire predictions that exhibition games will be one long power-play exercise, to the frustration of coaches and players.

"If it takes the pain of penalties to stop (obstruction), then so be it," Quinn said. " It's not the calls themselves that get you mad, but what's disappointed me in the past is that they said they would crack down and then they didn't."

The Leafs heard throughout the summer that this no-tolerance policy was here to stay. If so, a winger/defenceman such as Wade Belak will be the Leafs' ultimate camp guinea pig.

"It's going to be tough when I'm on defence, especially going into the corner in our zone," Belak said. "If I'm given a head fake and the guy gets past me a bit, it will be tough to fight for good body position without thinking of using my stick."

Quinn is not so sure those teams who favoured the stifling trap before the lockout won't just set their checkers deeper to guard against potential breakouts by faster clubs. But he's optimistic the Leafs have a team that can take advantage of the extra space created in the offensive zones.

"There's a bigger area from which to attack," he said, no doubt thinking what a Sundin could do on an unimpeded burst to the net. "I was one of the proponents of this kind of hockey several years ago. We built our early team in Toronto around that. But it became clear (the league) didn't want style and speed, they wanted people who could knock heads off."


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