Maurice sets tone for season

LANCE HORNBY -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 8:08 AM ET

The sound bite that die-hard fans wanted to hear could come back and chomp Paul Maurice in the backside.

But armed with what he's convinced is an improved Maple Leafs team for 2007-08, the coach opened training camp yesterday in straight-shooter fashion.

"We'll make the playoffs and compete for the Stanley Cup," Maurice said, echoing general manager John Ferguson's sentiments to Sun Media the day before.

In his first season, Maurice spoke of the Eastern Conference being a dogfight with no assurance of a post-season berth. A year later, with a better handle on the roster, a new goaltender, scoring winger and -- knock on wood, team health -- Maurice is putting the Leafs in the East's top eight.

There's no time to dither on Toronto's most pressing roster questions. There are just two days of practice before Sunday's Blue and White intrasquad game, with a day off before a meat-grinding four exhibition games in five nights ends Saturday in Boston.

"We'll be closer to our lineup after that Boston game," Maurice predicted. "I've already got the lines down for our first four games, but in those we want to see more of the younger players who won't be with us (in the regular season)."

That also means a few more days of guesswork as to where new $5 million US winger Jason Blake fits in.

For now, he's on the same scrimmage team as top line candidates Mats Sundin, Nik Antropov and Darcy Tucker.

Alexei Ponikarovsky, a potential first-line winger, and Kyle Wellwood, a good bet to centre the second unit, are split on the other two squads this weekend.

Blake mentioned that he likes to play with bigger forwards who can open up ice for him, citing Alexei Yashin's role in his career-high 40 goals last year on Long Island.

But he didn't want that seen as liking Sundin over Wellwood. "I've never played with any of these guys, so there's going to be (experimenting)," Blake said.

The same chemistry class will be conducted with the rest of the forwards.

Both Maurice and Ferguson were quite clear yesterday that they expect more from maturing baby boomers Alex Steen, Matt Stajan, John Pohl and Wellwood.

"Guys who are now third, fourth and fifth-year pros, we're looking to take more responsibility," Ferguson said.

Many fans have been disappointed in recent days to read that a team that hasn't made the playoffs for two years does not plan a major roster shakeup.

With Mark Bell suspended for the first 15 games, Blake and goalie Vesa Toskala might be the only changes from last year's at-large roster when the regular season starts Oct. 3 against Ottawa.

HAVE TO IMPRESS

A newcomer such as goaltender Justin Pogge, defenceman Anton Stralman or junior Jiri Tlusty would really have to impress in the next three weeks to stay.

"Performance will be recognized in camp," Maurice said. "But no young guy is going to come in and take Sundin's job."


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