The Maple Leafs vow to be better prepared for life in the fast lane this season.
While the National Hockey League became a quicker game last year, with hookers and hackers phased out and plenty of open ice on power plays, the hefty Leafs weren't exactly built for success. But given a year to assess the change and with GM John Ferguson altering the roster's makeup, the club will put renewed emphasis on team speed in 2006-07.
"You can say we are a faster team already," strength coach Matt Nichol said yesterday at Lakeshore Lions Arena as he watched an informal Leafs/Marlies practice. "But it's less about speed and more about better acceleration and a good start."
Since the end of last year, Nichol has timed the Leafs from goal line to goal line, in splits at the blue line and provided them a detailed fitness plan during the off-season. Without going into detail, Nichol says there are improvements in the clockings across the board.
"You can't emphasize the importance of this area enough," 6-foot-4 defenceman Andy Wozniewski said. "Matt sent me a program and my brother Marc (himself an athletic trainer in the family's Chicago neighbourhood) helped me stick with it in the gym and on the ice. I should be okay with keeping up to everyone when training camp starts (in mid-September)."
Slower centres Jason Allison and Eric Lindros are no longer on the team, but the club went bigger on defence with free agents Hal Gill and Pavel Kubina. Forward Nik Antropov has had trouble getting his 6-foot-6 frame untangled through some injury-plagued years, but dedicated himself to Nichol's plan in the summer. If nothing else, Antropov has developed better core strength in his lower torso and could be back on Mats Sundin's wing at camp.
"Some people would say players can't improve their speed, but I disagree," Nichol said. "The NHL has opened up for the better, too. Ten or 20 years ago, a player such as (5-foot-10 Leaf) Kyle Wellwood could have skated away from most players, but not been allowed to show his skill. Now he can."