Maurice is everything Quinn wasn't

STEVE SIMMONS -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:13 AM ET

For now, Paul Maurice can do no wrong.

He smiles and we take his picture. He speaks and we write down every word.

This is Day 1 of yet another Leafs training camp, Day 1 for a new coach who looks good, sounds good and has yet to lose a game.

Everything, for now, is optimistic. There is almost a surreal atmosphere to the beginning of any camp. There is this first day of school kind of freshness. Everybody is positive. Everybody has a story to tell about how this will be their year.

Today, the holes in all those theories begin to be exposed.

Today, reality commences for the Maple Leafs and for a coach whose charm may be tested in this less than welcoming of hockey markets. When Scotty Bowman was once asked about the key to good coaching, he replied: "Good players."

This is the crux of Paul Maurice's matter. How much can new systems, new pressures, new beliefs, new drills, change the same old players?

Or as race car owner Roger Penske once said of driver Paul Tracy: "I can teach him to slow down. I can't teach him to speed up."

EVERYBODY'S FAVOURITE

It is fascinating to witness how Maurice is perceived publicly as this training camp begins. He is everybody's favourite new Leaf, the anti-Pat Quinn. He is friendly, engaging, inviting, open, organized, up-tempo, modern, challenging. Did we say friendly?

Everything Quinn wasn't or wasn't supposed to be.

He clearly was the people's choice to succeed Quinn when the change was made and hardly a discouraging word has been uttered since the announcement.

But we interrupt this lovefest -- there is nothing quite as believing as a Leafs fan in early season form -- to inject a dose of factual content here.

Quinn missed the playoffs once in his seven seasons coaching the Leafs.

Maurice missed the playoffs five times in eight years, six in nine if you count the year he was fired, by Carolina/Hartford. See Scotty Bowman's comment above.

Quinn, who advocated an upscale offensive game when the majority of NHL teams were winning by using the neutral zone trap, was considered by some to be extinct as the NHL moved to a skill and speed game.

Maurice, who advocates pace and quickness in the new NHL game, coached primarily smothering hockey while in Carolina, especially in his most successful season, when the Hurricanes advanced to the Stanley Cup finals.

Only once in nine seasons in Carolina did a Maurice team get beyond the first round of the playoffs. Last year with the Marlies, he was eliminated in Round 1. He may be the great coach many expect him to be, there just isn't a commensurate record yet to confirm any of that.

And Maurice, for one, is not wide-eyed and all Richard Peddie-naive as camp opens. Even if he happens to believe in Nik Antropov.

"We're going to be in a dogfight to make the playoffs," said Maurice, which isn't exactly music to Leaf fans ears.

"If you're going to write that, people are going to say, "How can he lower his expectations of this team?" But those are the realistic expectations of the league.

"The Tampa Bay Lightning went through a stretch last year where they weren't sure about making the playoffs after winning the Cup ... Right now, from what I've read, not a lot of people are picking us to finish very high ... I'm not worried about the (fan) expectations. I can tell you they are almost as unrealistic in all 30 markets. It's a function in the change of the game."

The job begins today in earnest for Maurice and the Leafs. A new game, a new style to learn. The emphasis will be on pace and tempo. You may not be able to coach speed, but Maurice believes you can coach quick.

If he can turn some of these plowhorses into thoroughbreds, he'll get no quarrel here.

But he knows this honeymoon is temporary. These are the Leafs. He's the coach. Crap comes with the job.

"I know it's coming," said Paul Maurice with a smile. "This is just the start."

RAMAGE COURT DATE

The case against Rob Ramage is scheduled in court for January 2007, more than three years after the accident that killed former Blackhawk Keith Magnuson. If that seemed too late,we now get word a further delay could push the case back to next June.

WHERE'S MATS?

An apparent communications breakdown saw Mats Sundin leave the first day of Leafs camp without meeting with the media. This may have been intentional. This may not have been intentional. But Sundin, as team captain, should know better. He's been around long enough to know the drill. You're the captain, you hang around.

BATTING RACE

I admit a bias: I am cheering for Joe Mauer to win the AL batting title. It has nothing to do with my dislike for Derek Jeter and everything to do with the position Mauer plays. Catchers don't win batting titles. Not often, anyhow. By the end of most seasons, they tire and wear down. A victory by Mauer would be a victory for catchers and tired people everywhere.


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