Leafs now have chance to compete

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:59 AM ET

Today, it begins. The Maple Leafs will make the rounds of the doctors, the stationary bikes and the weight rooms and when it's over, they'll be pronounced fit to play.

Tomorrow, they'll go on the ice, nurturing the hope that they'll continue to do so until mid-June.

It's a lofty aim for a team that didn't make the playoffs last season, but in Gary's Brave New League, meteoric rises are possible, as we know from last season's Stanley Cup finalists.

A similar rise from the Leafs is possible, if for no other reason than they have one of the best coaches in the game.

Granted, he can't play goal. If the Leafs are to have a good season, Andrew Raycroft will have to revert to the form of his rookie year. Or another goalie will have to emerge.

NEW HEIGHTS

But in the other areas in which the Leafs are questionable -- five-on-five consistency, overall offence, hold-a-late-lead defence and so on -- coach Paul Maurice can elevate this team to a level it has not exhibited in years.

The standard refrain from Leafs fans is, "But where will the goals come from?"

They'll come from players who were not allowed to develop under the previous regime. Tie Domi will no longer be around to inhibit the ice time of Matt Stajan, for instance. Alex Steen will have the opportunity to show that, in many ways, the skills of the father have been passed on to the son.

Under Maurice, the players will know precisely what they're supposed to do. For a change.

Under the old regime, if you were, for instance, a penalty killer, you could, if you were so inclined, take it upon yourself to dig out a tape of the next opponent and see if you noticed any useful tendencies.

Under Maurice, you will be told what to expect, what to watch for and how to counter it.

In the next few days, the whole team will work upon the specifics that are the basis of his system.

Under the old regime, training camp was mostly scrimmages. In Maurice's training camp, there will be no scrimmages. It makes sense. In today's game, physical contact is an integral part. But what's the sense of banging your teammates? And if you don't, how does it prepare you for the season?

Instead, at least three -- perhaps five -- new systems will be introduced and the players will try to master them.

The underlying principle is that hockey has changed dramatically during the past few years -- the past two seasons really -- and if a team is to be successful, it has to build speed through the neutral zone, then blast in on the defenders. No more circling around near the red line. No more little curls at the blue line and drop passes that usually do more to trap your team than to help it.

The Tampa Bay Lightning won the Stanley Cup because they used a system that generated offence from deep in the offensive zone -- so deep it spent more time behind the opponent's goal than any team in the league.

The Carolina Hurricanes won the Stanley Cup with a system that had a similar focus.

Last year's Leafs used a system that was based on waiting for power plays and blasting shots from the point.

That system does pay off when it comes about, but for the rest of the game, the Leafs were woefully inadequate.

This year's Leafs certainly will have their inadequate moments as well. But when they do, they'll be told what they did wrong. They'll be told how to do it right.

If they consistently fail to meet expectations, they won't get their ice time. Those who can do the job effectively will be the ones who get the call.

There will be accountability -- and it has been a long time since anyone ever said that about the Leafs.

Behind the bench, Maurice will do his part. He'll match lines; he'll spot players to make the most of their attributes.

And if those attributes really exist and are not just a figment of the general manager's imagination, then the Leafs will do well.

Maurice will make sure of that.


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