Turning over a new Leaf

LANCE HORNBY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 10:36 AM ET

ANDREW RAYCROFT

One has been a lonely number for Leafs goaltenders in recent years.

A string of stoppers wearing No. 1 have not moved far from the end of the bench, names such as Damian Rhodes, Jeff Reese, Mark LaForest, Peter Ing, Rick St. Croix and Daren Puppa.

Andrew Raycroft intends to restore the Johnny Bower-Turk Broda-Lorne Chabot lustre to the single digit. Though he'd rather forget last season, when he lost his starting job in Boston, he could pen a similar comeback story to Ed Belfour, who came here in 2002 to stage his NHL resurrection. You name it, it went wrong for Raycroft; a lockout hangover, the rule changes, upheaval on the 13th-place Bruins and an unexpected challenge from Tim Thomas and Hannu Toivonen.

"You can't go through a whole career and not have a tough year," Raycroft said. "I feel I'm ready to bounce back."

Raycroft thought No. 1 was retired with the Leafs (it's actually "honoured" and still in circulation). A student of the Toronto-Montreal rivalry growing up in Belleville, he already has had a pre-season taste of winning at the Bell Centre as a Leaf, in front of 21,000 fans.

"It doesn't get any better," Raycroft said.

He was a low-profile, fourth-round pick of the Bruins in 1998, but within two years -- he played almost every game for the Kingston Frontenacs -- becoming the first goalie since Glenn Hall 50 years earlier to win the Red Tillson Trophy as OHL MVP.

The Bruins rushed him into the lineup, but eventually let him mature on the farm. It wasn't until getting paired with childhood hero Felix Potvin that his career took off.

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MICHAEL PECA

More than any other new skater, Michael Peca will have an impact on the new direction of the Leafs.

Toronto, which had plenty of trouble last year without the puck, is going to a two-man forecheck that the 2004 champion Tampa Bay Lightning reinvented and many teams are adopting. It's a system that the No. 2 centre Peca can capitalize upon after more than a decade as one of the best two-way forwards in the league.

"Being such a predominantly skating league now, you have to try to disrupt puck movement, especially in the other team's end," Peca said. "You want to eliminate that speed coming up ice, use your speed to advantage instead of retreating and turning the puck over.

"The biggest thing is that we want to be a team that's tough to play against. But we have to do it by staying out of the box and (failing that), give the goalie an opportunity to make the first save and clear the front of the net after that."

The North York native is a player who shouldn't wilt in the hometown spotlight, well aware he has put pressure on himself with older fans by retaining No. 27.

"When I think of playing with the Leafs now, I think of all the kids who are seven, eight, nine (years old), the way I was, and what I thought about when I played hockey in the streets," Peca said earlier this year. "I'm trying to lead by example. There's a game we're trying to employ here from our coaching staff and help the young guys along."

Peca and coach Paul Maurice hit it off in a productive summer meeting; the coach was comfortable making Peca one of his lieutenants, while Peca is impressed with the Leafs' new chemistry.

"Dialogue between players and coaches is crucial," Peca said. "(Maurice) doesn't seem to have a chip on his shoulder or any kind of pride that doesn't allow players to come up and discuss things."

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HAL GILL

If you're downtown and have trouble distinguishing the CN Tower from the towering Hal Gill, he's the defenceman with the Fenway Park accent.

The 6-foot-7 Gill already is acclimatizing to Toronto, comparing it favourably with his Boston home.

"It's an international city, you walk down the street and hear 10 different languages," Gill said.

"It's a lot bigger than Boston in terms of getting across town. Boston is known for bad traffic, but I can't believe there's more here.

"But the neighbourhoods are similar: Little Italy, Chinatown, Greektown. The way the schedule has gone, our family (wife Anne and daughter Isabelle) haven't had a lot of down time to see them all yet."

Canada has figured prominently in Gill's career, with many memorable games against the Leafs and Montreal Canadiens. His brief stop in the minors ended with a game in Hamilton where the Boston Bruins' Providence farm team was to play the hometown Bulldogs. Injuries on Boston's defence led to Gill getting a short-notice call-up to debut for the B's in Vancouver.

"I met him in Hamilton with the airline ticket and he never played another game on the farm," said Bruins scout Bob Tindall. "We picked him really late (207th in the 1993 draft). He attended college the full four years. So when he came to our camp at age 22, it was kind of a shock because he was further developed than our big teenage juniors and no one knew much about him."

Gill checks in at 250 pounds, but does not actively search out scrums and fights, preferring to use his size to envelope enemy skaters, doing a particularly good job on Jaromir Jagr through the years.

Hampered by the new rules last year -- "obstruction was my calling card," he said jokingly -- he has worked hard on skating and hopes to re-invent himself as a penalty killer.

"The whole team hasn't played together yet, so I'm looking forward to opening night," Gill said. "Everyone seems to be on the same page. I hear a lot about the way it used to be and how it's different now. It makes me feel more comfortable that I'm not the only one thrown into a different situation."

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PAVEL KUBINA

Pavel Kubina tells a few good stories about winning the Stanley Cup, which makes him unique in a success-starved Leafs room.

"The day I brought the Cup home was the highlight of my life," said the big Czech defenceman, who possessed the trophy for three days in the summer of 2004 after the Tampa Bay Lightning won.

"The greatest memory was bringing it to my hometown of Janovice, which has about 2,000 people. I had a big party on the soccer field, with about 7,000 to 9,000 people from all around. With the traffic, you couldn't get in or out of town.

"I brought it to the house where I grew up, for my brother, all my friends and for my parents, who had supported me so much, taking me to practice when I was seven, eight and nine. They've watched every hockey game they can.

"I went to see the president of the Czech Republic (Vaclav Klaus), brought the Cup and gave him a Tampa Bay sweater with his name on it. I spent about 45 minutes with him."

Kubina would be faking if he didn't miss eight years in Tampa, the weather, the players and his friends. Even after the Leafs forwarded him a four-year, $20-million US contract on the first day of free agency, he offered the Bolts a hometown discount. But a few weeks in a hockey-first city has him fired him up.

"From the first day, playing in the Blue and White game (8,000 people for a Leaf scrimmage), I thought, 'You won't see that anywhere else in the NHL.'

"You can see the town just lives for hockey, the newspapers are all about hockey and that's what I like to see. You have some good veterans here and some of the best young guys in the league, such as Matt Stajan and Alex Steen."

Kubina hopes to establish a children's charity similar to what he ran in Tampa. "Kuby's Little Bolts" arranged for unused season's tickets to be donated to disadvantaged kids, though pricey Leaf ducats might be harder to round up.

"I had that charity in Tampa, I do a lot of work back home in summer and I'd love to do something like that here," he said. "There are a lot of charities you can work with, but my favourite is kids. They need it the most."

He and girlfriend Andrea are expecting their first child in two months.


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