Leafs a happy bunch

KEN FIDLIN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:12 AM ET

Nobody has ever proven that perfect locker-room Karma is a prerequisite for winning at professional sports.

In fact, lots of teams steeped in tumult have ridden their talent and their professional work ethic into the winner's circle without subscribing to the peace-love-dove concept. But there's no arguing that harmony in the dressing room makes the ride a lot more pleasant.

It's hard to put your finger on any one reason but, for what it's worth, this seems like the most congenial Maple Leafs locker-room in years.

It could be any of a half-dozen reasons or a combination of all of them. Who can tell? What's easy to identify is that there's clearly a more relaxed atmosphere this year.

Winning helps, but the Leafs often have been accustomed to winning (games, not championships) in the past. Maybe it's the absence of the Tie Domi dynamic, which may have rattled some young nerves in the past.

There's no question that Paul Maurice and Pat Quinn have very different approaches. Maybe Quinn's taciturn ways left his players, especially the young ones, feeling edgy and uncertain while Maurice's penchant for open communication, even when it's delivered at maximum volume, is more reassuring.

"Some of the younger guys are probably more relaxed with me since I coached them last year," Maurice said. "They know that when I'm screaming at them it's really not personal."

Regardless how his team arrived at this happy state of mind, the atmosphere in the dressing room has been on the coach's mind ever since he took the job last summer.

"It's something that you try to monitor early on," Maurice said yesterday after practice. "There's not a lot you can know coming in from the outside. That's something that took me a long time to learn. Even as the coach of a team you don't truly know what goes on in the room when you're not there. Like, the little chemistries of who gets along and where there's friction."

That said, there is reason to believe that Maurice made Domi's departure a condition of his employment when taking the Leafs job. Now that could have more to do with Maurice's assessment of Domi's on-ice decline than his Machiavellian nature in the locker-room but there's no denying Domi was a key locker-room force for many years.

In defence of Domi, he was once an important voice in the Leafs room, just as he was an important, if specialized, performer on the ice. But there's not nearly as much need for enforcement these days and it's difficult for a guy who is playing five or six minutes a game, none of them at crunch time, to command a lot of respect from his peers when he speaks up.

Perhaps an even greater reason for the relaxed atmosphere among the young players in the Leafs room is that there are a lot more of them now than even two years ago.

The last time the Leafs made the playoffs, in April 2004, the average age on Toronto's post-season roster was 31.4 years. There were only three players -- Alexei Ponikarovsky, Nik Antropov and Matt Stajan -- under the age of 25 on that playoff roster.

The average age of the current Leafs team is more than four years younger, at just over 27 years. Nine of the 27 players listed on the roster right now are 24 or younger.

It's easy enough to see how a young player, definitely in the minority, might have been a bit uncomfortable in the veteran-laden, pre-lockout Leafs locker-room. It's just as easy to see how, with so much company, the young players on the current roster seem comfortable as a group.

"I can tell you that these guys really seem to get along well," Maurice said, "and not just in the standard front we put up. You know, the circle-the-wagons type get-along.

"They really get along. They have fun, they laugh. They're not the loudest group but they seem to enjoy each other."

Leafs fans, separated from their most recent Stanley Cup party by 40 years, would like a few belts of this happy juice, too. Just win, baby.


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