Coach confronts the Leafs' issues

MIKE ZEISBERGER

, Last Updated: 8:44 AM ET

Before Paul Maurice starts wagging an accusing finger at his players for the failure of his Maple Leafs to reach the playoffs last season, there is one person he blames first.

Himself.

"If we succeed on the ice, we don't have any problems," the second-year Toronto coach was saying the other day. "That was our problem. We didn't succeed.

"Let's face it. We're headed in the right direction, but we didn't win the Stanley Cup and that opens us up to scrutiny.

"We didn't get enough done. I didn't get enough done."

Less than two weeks before his team takes to the Ricoh Coliseum ice for the opening of training camp on Sept. 13, Maurice is crammed into his modest office at Lakeshore Lions Arena preparing to ensure a post-season berth does not elude his Leafs, again. In the adjoining room, assistants Dallas Eakins and Randy Ladouceur are diligently going over video, searching for whatever kind of edge that might help entering the 2007-08 season.

A season that Maurice feels could be a special one.

"I expect we will make the playoffs and challenge for the Stanley Cup," he sincerely predicts.

Playoffs, fine. But the Cup? Critics might wonder what spirits the coach is putting into his morning coffee after that statement.

"Here's why I feel that way," he says. "We want to have the identity of being a tough team to play against. If that's the case, we'll know how to be successful in the playoffs because that's the way we would have played all year."

Agree with him or not, Maurice means it.

"I think Ottawa and Carolina are the class of the East," he says. "The Rangers and Flyers improved themselves, too. I just feel we have bolstered our team in certain key areas.

"Hey, we just missed out by one point a year ago and I feel we are a better team now."

In order for his Leafs to take the next step, there are a number of issues Maurice must deal with once camp kicks off.

And here is how he plans on facing each and every one of them:

THE CROWDED CREASE

The moment Paul Maurice holds his first press conference of camp, you can bet he'll be grilled concerning the identity of his No. 1 goalie.

The off-season acquisition of Vesa Toskala logically suggests he'll step right into the starter's role over fan scapegoat Andrew Raycroft, but Maurice warns the job will not just be handed over to the former San Jose Shark.

"We needed more depth in goal," Maurice says. "We did not want to put Andrew in the position to play 72 games, again.

"I think Andrew is going to have a big year. Last year, he had to deal with coming into the spotlight of the Toronto market, not to mention all the questions about his previous year (in Boston). This time around, from what I've seen, he looks really focussed.

"Vesa makes our team better. He might be No. 1, but Andrew might be, too. Both have something to prove. Vesa must show he can carry the load as a starter and Andrew must show he can bring his game to a higher level."

AGING MATS

With 36-year-old Mats Sundin facing unrestricted free agency this summer, might it have been better to let the big Swede walk and use the money for a younger potential centrepiece of the Maple Leafs puzzle?

Not according to Maurice, who feels his captain remains one of the league's most skilled competitors.

Maurice only hopes some of Sundin's leadership load can be alleviated by the younger players on the roster.

"What he delivered for us on and off the ice last year was vital," the coach says. "Not only was he our leading scorer, but when we had injury problems and young guys were coming up to replace them, Mats was great at accepting them and making them feel a part of the team.

"I just would like to see some of the kids learn and take over some of his leadership duties, not just the Bryan McCabes and Tomas Kaberles."

WHAT'S MY LINE?

The addition of free-agent 40-goal sniper Jason Blake had bloggers all over the internet listing the dream combination of Blake, Sundin and Darcy Tucker as their choice to make up the team's top unit.

While it might look good on paper, Maurice isn't about to put all of his premium eggs in one basket.

"We have to move Darcy around," he says. "We can't be a one-line team."

Maurice admits the speedy Blake likely will start alongside Sundin, although the newcomer might see action on Kyle Wellwood's flank, as well. Sundin and Blake are expected to be joined by either Nik Antropov or Alexei Ponikarovsky, with the odd man out finding himself on a line with Wellwood and Tucker.

The Leafs were high on Ryan Smyth entering free agency, but love what Blake brings to the table.

"He adds something different," Maurice said of Blake. "Ryan Smyth is a great player but Jason brings a lot of speed. We're a big team and always can use some of that.

"He'll be a great complement to Mats."

KUBINA CONUNDRUM

In the waning stages of last season, there was a school of thought making the rounds that the Leafs should ship Pavel Kubina and his $5-million salary to the AHL Marlies, thereby creating cap room.

That idea is quickly rejected by Maurice, who feels the former Tampa Bay defenceman will regain the form that helped the Lightning win the Cup in 2004.

"I'm looking for Kubina to have a big season," Maurice says. "Most people have no idea how long he played hurt last season. A pulled groin, a knee injury, a broken finger ... Not to sound like an excuse, but he had more than his share of adversity last season."

KID STUFF

Alex Steen and Kyle Wellwood once again represent the Leafs youth movement up front.

As such, they can expect some pressing demands from their vocal coach.

Wellwood's challenge: Stay out of the trainer's room.

"I think Kyle's next step is playing 80 games,"Maurice says. "As such, we're going to pressure him to do that."

In Steen's case, it's time for the young Swede to showcase his wheels.

"I think Alex went through a learning process last year," Maurice says. "Now it's time where I want to see his speed. He can't think so much, he's just got to react."

THE NUMBERS GAME

When it comes to stats, shootouts don't overly concern Maurice.

Maurice hopes the addition of Blake and Toskala will help improve the team's 4-7 shootout record, but quickly points out that "Ottawa and Anaheim had losing shootout records, too, and still made the final."

The key to making the playoffs, according to the coach, is shaving off some of the 269 goals allowed by his Leafs last season.

"Of the top 16 teams who allowed the least goals last season, 15 made the postseason,"Maurice said. "Tampa was the only exception."

FRONT-OFFICE FOLLIES

It would be naive to think Maurice is not aware of some of the board room battles within Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd.

While the differences in opinion between the Richard Peddie and Larry Tanenbaum factions are well-documented, general manager John Ferguson has endured a summer of knowing the front office was hunting for a so-called "mentor" for him.

Can Maurice tune all of this out?

"From the board of directors to John, myself, the players, trainers, front office staff, the No. 1 priority is to win," Maurice says.

WHIPPING BOY MCCABE

Bryan McCabe has become the whipping boy of Leafs Nation.

No Toronto player is booed more lustily by the home crowd, although Raycroft and defenceman Hal Gill also periodically felt the fans' venom.

"When things are not going good, those are the guys who take the heat," Maurice says.

"In Bryan's case, there are a couple of reasons. First, he wears the 'A' on his jersey. Secondly, people look at his (almost $6 million US per season average) salary.

"But understand this. Bryan once again was one of the league's top scoring defencemen (57 points) last season, a commodity most teams would clamour to have. He is such a valuable ingredient to our team."

RING THE BELL

Given newcomer Mark Bell's recent legal issues, Maurice understands the one-time 25-goal scorer will be under public scrutiny the moment the first puck is dropped.

"In a situation like this, everone has a part to play," Maurice says. "Society and the legal system have played their part. Obviously, it's a serious issue.

"For my part, I'm going to support him as much as possible. We want this place to be one where he can come and feel comfortable, and I think some of that already is built into our room. Our leaders have created an environment where he feels safe. That's the case not just for Mark but for every player. The room should be a refuge for these guys."

On the ice, Maurice does not expect another 25 goals from Bell, although he'll gladly take them.

"We just want him to make our team a tougher one to play against," said Maurice, who is toying the idea of having Bell centre a line with Alex Steen and, possibly, Boyd Devereaux. "Mark's not going to be judged by numbers after 20 games. He's a valuable physical guy who will play all over."


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