Leafs vow to come out swinging

MIKE ZEISBERGER -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 5:19 PM ET

All NHL fans attending tonight’s season openers throughout the league will receive a miniature replica of the Stanley Cup. Many of those at the Air Canada Centre probably figure it’s the closest they’ll get to the real trophy this season.

Sports Illustrated thinks so, predicting the Maple Leafs will finish 20th overall.

So do many of the sports talk-show callers, who gab relentlessly about the off-season losses of Gary Roberts and Joe Nieuwendyk.

Just don’t try to sell that argument inside the Maple Leafs dressing room, where an “us-against-the-world” attitude seems to be prevailing these days.

“I don’t really care,” Eric Lindros said this week when asked about the gloomy predictions. “In fact, I don’t think anyone here really cares about how we are perceived.

“I think we have a good team, a confident team and one that will let its play do the talking for it.”

In order for the Leafs to surprise everyone, here are 10 things to keep an eye on during the 2005-06 season:

1. Fergie’s Calculator

General manager John Ferguson’s fat wallet shrivelled with the arrival of the new collective bargaining agreement and its $39-million US salary cap. No longer can the Leafs deal for big-ticker players like (gulp) Owen Nolan at the trade deadline and pick up a major chunk of salary. Ferguson’s ability to manoeuvre within the guidelines of the 600-page CBA will be a key in a league where parity is likely to rule. Ferguson won’t reveal his hand, just saying “we have a plan in place.” So, too, the critics say, did General Custer.

2. Bryan’s Butt

Don’t get too excited, ladies. What we’re referring to here is Bryan McCabe’s famous butt check. Will it be allowed? What can players get away with under the new rules? Known as a rugged, in-your-face squad during Pat Quinn’s reign, a lack of discipline and repeated trips to the penalty box will be suicide for McCabe and Co. “Every guy looks to see how much he can cheat,” McCabe said. If the Leafs can’t get a handle on these new regulations, McCabe will be at home with his newborn baby come playoff time.

3. Belfour’s Back

The Eagle owns the most celebrated collection of vertebrae in town, and with good reason.With apologies to Mikael Tellqvist and J-F Racine, this team will go only as far as Ed Belfour can carry it. “I feel great,”said Belfour, who underwent back surgery a year ago. That hasn’t stopped critics from predicting an imminent breakdown for the Eagle, although his former coach, Ken Hitchcock, disagrees. “Eddie’s always more determined when he’s being counted out,” Hitchcock said. He had better be.

4. Lindros’ Legacy

Lindros was quizzed so much about his health in the past month, our abacus can’t keep count. “Why do people make so much about my (concussion history)?” he said early in camp. “I’m fine.” True, his head was given a clean bill of health by neurologist Karen Johnson last month. But a recent oblique muscle injury already has some prematurely calling him The Big Ouch. Welcome to hockey life in T.O., Eric. Enjoy the scrutiny.

5. Allison’s Cobwebs

Jason Allison was impressive during his pair of pre-season outings. That’s the trouble. He only played in two of the Leafs eight exhibition games because of a hip/groin injury. Here’s a guy who has not played a regular season game since January of 2003. “I’m ready for the opener,” assured Allison. Maybe. But can he survive the other 81 games on the schedule?

6. Nik’s Noggin

Nik Antropov’s talent has never been an issue, but there are those who continue to question what’s going on between his ears. Big Nik can transform from looking lethal to lethargic on the same shift. That inconsistency has left him in the doghouse of the fans, who actually booed him during a pre-season shootout. “I don’t worry what people say about me, I just try and be better,” Antropov said. Not since Larry Murphy has the public plopped such goathorns on a Leaf. Management, meanwhile, is losing patience with him, too.

7. Kiddie Corps

The cupboard was supposed to be bare when it came to prospects, wasn’t it? Hold on, though. Give the Leafs credit for a 2002 entry draft that produced forwards Matt Stajan and Alex Steen, who might start the season on the same line. On the back end, defenceman Andy Wozniewski was one of the more pleasant surprises at camp while Carlo Colaiacovo and Staffan Kronwall wait in the wings. Unable to just throw cash at a variety of free agents any more, the Leafs must continue to develop young talent because, for one thing, they carry relatively cheap price tags.

8. Back-end Blues

It was fun while it lasted, wasn’t it? Two months of seeing Brian Leetch in a Toronto jersey was a tease for those who dreamed for years of seeing such a stud at the back end. He’s in Boston now, while the Leafs deal with the bumps and bruises nagging Ken Klee, Aki Berg and Wade Belak. McCabe, Tomas Kaberle and newcomer Alexei Khavanov are a solid core, but a lack of depth plagues the defence.

9. Red Light District

With Roberts (28), Nieuwendyk (22), Owen Nolan (19), Mikael Renberg (12), Robert Reichel (11) and Alex Mogilny (8) no longer on the scene, how will the Leafs replace the 100 goals netted by those players in 2003-04? Newcomers Allison, Lindros, Jeff O’Neill and Mariusz Czerkawski must pick up the slack or coach Pat Quinn might be forced to dress speedy assistant coach Keith (Woody) Acton to help light the lamp.

10. Northeast Nightmare?

The Senators added Dominik Hasek and Dany Heatley, the Bruins welcomed Leetch and Alexei Zhamnov, the Habs locked up shifty Alexei Kovalev and the Sabres arguably have the best collection of prospects in the league. There are no bottom-feeders in the Northeast, where each team will play divisional opponents eight times, up two from 2003-04. The Leafs will find out early on how they stack up after playing divisional opponents six times in October.

Gather your buddies

Ten dates to circle on the Maple Leaf sked:

1. Tonight vs. Ottawa Have Hasek and Heatley shifted momentum Ottawa’s way in Battle of Ontario?

2. Oct. 11 vs. Philly If the Leafs aren’t bitter about being eliminated by Flyers the past two seasons, they should be.

3. Oct. 31 vs. Florida Nieuwendyk and Roberts return on Halloween attempting to haunt their former team.

4. Nov. 5 vs. Tampa The defending Stanley Cup champions come to town for the Hall of Fame game.

5. Nov. 15 vs. Rangers Big E faces his former team for first time since inking with Leafs.

6. Nov. 25 @ Carolina After seven years with Hurricanes, Jeff O’Neill returns to Tobacco Road.

7. Dec. 26 vs. New Jersey The electrifying Alex Mogilny back at the Air Canada Centre.

8. Dec. 27 @ Pittsburgh Mr.Belfour, meet Mr.Crosby

9. Jan. 2 vs. Pittsburgh Toronto fans get their first live look at Sid the Kid in a Pens jersey.

10. Jan. 6 @ Calgary/Jan. 7 @ Edmonton/Jan. 10 @ Vancouver Yes we know its three games but they’re significant. The Leafs won’t make another western Canada trip until 08-09.


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