What (and who) to look for

MIKE ZEISBERGER -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 10:51 AM ET

The newer, younger Maple Leafs begin their pre-season workouts tomorrow at the Ricoh Coliseum.

The opening of camp always arrives with some key questions to be answered by the time the regular season begins. For the Leafs, there are a few more than usual.

BLUE LINE BLUES

Of all the battles contested at camp, none will be more fierce than that on the blue line.

Coach Ron Wilson dropped the bombshell earlier this week that only three defencemen -- Tomas Kaberle, Pavel Kubina and Jeff Finger -- are guaranteed spots, leaving Mike Van Ryn, Anton Stralman, Jonas Frogren, Ian White, Carlo Colaiacovo, Staffan Kronwall and, perhaps, first-rounder Luke Schenn, battling for the remaining four spots.

Van Ryn should be a frontrunner if his surgically repaired wrist is fully healed.

As for Schenn, Wilson is unlikely to keep him with the big club unless he cracks the top four, believing that the kid's development would be hampered by limited ice time.

CENTRES OF ATTENTION

While Mats Sundin remains in limbo, the Leafs find themselves entering the season without a bona fide No. 1 centre.

According to Wilson, Alex Steen will get a shot to start in the middle between newcomers Niklas Hagman and Nikolai Kulemin on one line, with Mikael Grabovski and Matt Stajan looking to get plenty of minutes in the middle, as well.

A shift from wing to centre by the end of camp could also be a possibility for Nik Antropov.

ON THE HOT SEAT

Jason Blake: Veteran winger scored just 15 goals last season after inking a five-year, $20-million US contract. He was, however, diagnosed with a rare form of blood cancer last October. If anyone is looking for a fresh start, it's Blake.

Jeff Finger: This poor guy hasn't yet played a game for the Leafs and already he is being scrutinized after being overpaid with a four-year, $14 million deal. He'll need thick skin.

Mark Bell: Last season included a suspension for the big winger, a fractured orbital bone and a summer serving on a California work crew for a DUI incident in 2006. He has reason to want to put his past behind him.

KEEP YOUR EYE ON

Nikolai Kulemin: Evgeni Malkin claims his former Russian Elite League linemate "will be a good NHL player." Given the lack of scoring depth on this Leafs team, the young winger will need to be.

Jonas Frogren: The scouting report says the Swedish national team defenceman plays a physical, North American style game. It will be interesting to see how he fares on the smaller NHL rinks.

Mikhail Grabovski: Scouts claim the little winger has a world of talent but holds on to the puck too long. If anyone can rid him of that habit, it's Wilson.

Luke Schenn: His nickname is "The Human Eraser" for his bone-crushing hits. Let's see if he can live up to it.

CAPTAIN'S LOG

With Sundin gone, who will wear the "C?"

General manager Cliff Fletcher said Wilson wants to wait on making a decision, but don't be surprised if the captaincy rotates on a month-by-month basis, a system the Buffalo Sabres used last season.

DOG DAZE

Six years after Curtis Joseph bolted for the Detroit Red Wings, the harsh feelings fans harboured toward Cujo seem to have subsided.

One thing to note during Joseph's second stint as a Leaf: Take a look at his back plate, the part of the mask that protects the back of a goalie's head. There, Joseph has each of his kids' initials printed inside the outline of a dog's paw.

FREEBIE NIGHT

If the throng packed into the Air Canada Centre for Monday's pre-season opener against the Buffalo Sabres seems more vocal than usual, there is good reason.

Instead of the sushi-munching suits occupying the seats, the building will be filled by 20,000 fans who received free ducats courtesy of the Leafs and Coca-Cola. Imagine that: A rare noisy crowd for a Leafs game.

KILLER CALLING

For the first time since 1986 the Leafs will start camp without at least one of Wendel Clark, Doug Gilmour or Mats Sundin on the roster.

Talk about a lack of star power.

For his part, Gilmour will be on the ice at the Ricoh at the beginning of workouts as he embarks on his new role as assistant coach with the Marlies.


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