Leafs' reality check-in

Leafs' Nikolai Kulemin works out during a pre-season scrimmage earlier in the week. (Sun...

Leafs' Nikolai Kulemin works out during a pre-season scrimmage earlier in the week. (Sun Media/Michael Peake)

MIKE ZEISBERGER -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 11:04 AM ET

"We will make the playoffs and compete for the Stanley Cup."

-- Paul Maurice, Sept. 13, 2007

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Say what you want about how wrong former Maple Leafs coach Paul Maurice proved to be after he uttered those fateful words 373 days ago, but at least he had the stones to go public with them.

Maurice put himself on the hot seat because he honestly believed in the team. If you want to blame him for anything, it should be for grossly overestimating his roster.

More than one year later, there are no such claims of confidence and bravado coming from the team's hierarchy. Far from it.

When the Leafs congregate at the Ricoh Coliseum this morning for team medicals, thereby kicking off training camp in the process, they can digest a number of comments made in recent weeks foreshadowing a potentially ominous season.

Such as the one from general manager Cliff Fletcher, who said the Leafs have just one top-six forward -- Nik Antropov -- on the roster.

Or the revelation from Richard Peddie, president of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd., that the team has not budgeted for any post-season dates -- the first time that has happened since Peddie directly became involved with the hockey team 10 years ago.

TAKES HIS SHOT

Even NHL bad boy Sean Avery took a shot at the organization recently, rationalizing the Leafs' decision not to pursue him in free agency over the summer by saying: "They didn't seem to want me. I guess they wanted to stay in last place."

Ouch.

Whatever the case, the Leafs had no choice but to change the face, the culture and the philosophy of the organization.

Three consecutive non-playoff seasons marked the first time the franchise had gone through such a drought since 1926-28. Keep in mind that Maple Leaf Gardens had not yet been built at that time.

If that is not a good enough reason to ignite a house-cleaning, then what is?

As a result, the core of both the roster and the management team has been methodically ripped apart in the past eight months. Gone are coach Maurice, general manager John Ferguson, veteran players Bryan McCabe, Darcy Tucker, Andrew Raycroft, Kyle Wellwood, Wade Belak, Chad Kilger, Jay Harrison, John Pohl and, most importantly, Mats Sundin (at least for the time being), just to name a few.

The show now belongs to Fletcher and former San Jose Sharks coach Ron Wilson, who will not find any Joe Thorntons or Jonathan Cheechoos on his Toronto roster. Former Leaf Joe Nieuwendyk looks to be a key front office addition while, down on the ice, Curtis Joseph returns to the Leafs to back up Vesa Toskala. Forwards Jamal Mayers, Niklas Hagman, Mikhail Grabovski, Nikolai Kulemin and Ryan Hollweg join defencemen Mike Van Ryn, Jonas Frogren, Jeff Finger and, perhaps, first-round pick Luke Schenn as newcomers looking to make an impact.

Wilson understands the daunting task ahead. His defensive-first style served him well when he was behind the bench during the early days of the then talent-thin Anaheim Mighty Ducks, a system he hopes to repeat with the young Leafs.

There's the rub. More than anything else, the key aspect for this team is how the young players develop. If the Leafs want to stick to their mantra of rebuilding the team, then greenhorns Kulemin, Grabovski, Jiri Tlusty and Anton Stralman must be afforded the suitable ice time to learn and improve, something that can't be accomplished if they are collecting splinters on the end of the bench.

Fletcher claims that as many as 10 players 25 or under could be on the Leafs roster when they open the 2008-09 season against the defending Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings at Joe Louis Arena on Oct. 9.

The Silver Fox is preaching patience, but it will be interesting to see if management, not to mention the fans, can display such a trait.

After being prodded and poked by team doctors this morning, players will be thrown right into the fire. The exhibition season starts Monday against the Buffalo Sabres, the first of nine pre-season games that will serve as a proving ground for those looking to land a spot for the regular season.

However modest expectations might be for the season, let the auditions begin.


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