Conditioned for success?

New Toronto Maple Leaf defenceman Pavel Kubina was one of a few players that took to the ice...

New Toronto Maple Leaf defenceman Pavel Kubina was one of a few players that took to the ice Thursday at Ricoh Coliseum. (Toronto Sun/Fred Thornhill)

LANCE HORNBY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 10:56 AM ET

Approaching 40 years without a Stanley Cup and five months after missing the playoffs, that faded reflection in the Maple Leafs' mirror cried out for a makeover.

So, what better day than camp medicals to sound off about becoming younger, faster, healthier and yes, more disciplined under a new coach and puck-pressure system. It conjured a vision of wholesome Canadian hockey that could've jumped from the pages of the 1956 Eaton's catalogue. Whether that is a fairy tale in 2006 remains to be seen.

At least general manager John Ferguson needn't start the year crossing his fingers about injury risks to older players at key positions. Ed Belfour, Eric Lindros and Jason Allison are gone, Owen Nolan was paid off and the Ferguson-appointed medical and training staff is in the second-year of a maintenance program.

In addition to having a younger group to mould, the GM fired off a letter to each Leaf in the summer, essentially warning that Camp Quinn was getting a tougher counsellor in Paul Maurice.

"The players are ready for a demanding period," Ferguson said yesterday at Ricoh Coliseum, where on-ice workouts begin this morning. "We let them know they'd be playing exhibition games within three days of starting camp and go right into four games in six nights when the season starts.

"You had older players who might not have had that ability to bounce back every single night (the Leafs suffered in back-to-back situations last year). We're counting on our guys being ready to go from Day 1, being at peak condition. That often translates to durability and capability."

Ferguson was not quite ready to admit he goofed in putting faith in so many players with questionable injury histories, particularly Allison and Lindros.

"We were dinged up, but with non-conditioning related injuries," he said. "Both had (histories) of head and neck injuries, yet both suffered hand injuries. I'm not sure those could've been prevented. (Allison's) occured during a fight."

The Leafs lost 257 man games last year, beginning with captain Mats Sundin at the start and No. 1 goalie Belfour at the end. Some clubs went as high as 400 games lost, but few of those survived in the spring .

"You can try and do everything right for conditioning, but injuries can devastate your team," Maurice said.

Assuming most Leafs start 82 games, the next step is to stay on the ice. They were short-handed 496 times last year and almost all teams that were over 500 missed the playoffs. Pat Quinn's poor relationship with the officials and its adverse effects on the bench didn't help.

"Without discipline, it can be a distraction," Ferguson said. "It can often allow players -- and even organizations -- an excuse ... You certainly don't win the playoffs without discipline in your play and conduct."

Maurice agrees on the need to cut down on penalties.

"You can't stay in the penalty box all night, unless your goal is to beat the other team up," he said. "Intimidation was already going out of the game."

The first day of camp had a youthful exuberance led by the recently signed Matt Stajan, 22, who expects to get more ice time under Maurice.

"I loved having Pat as my coach, because he brought me into the league," Stajan said. "I just think last year, with the lineup we had and when everyone healthy, I was the last guy out.

"But down the stretch, I thought I really boosted my confidence and proved to people I could play a lot more. But with new coaches, I know I have to earn that all over again."


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