This has gotta hurt

STEVE BUFFERY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 12:34 PM ET

Maple Leafs coach Ron Wilson didn't fall off a turnip truck, so he wasn't going to make the same mistake of his predecessor, Paul Maurice, and sugarcoat his team's chances this season.

"The only prediction is that we'll be a hard-working team," Wilson said yesterday during the team medicals at Ricoh Coliseum. "That's the one thing I can guarantee. We'll work hard. Every night."

One key area in which the Leafs are determined to improve is in their play without the puck. Wilson said it will be up to him and his coaching staff to bring the players together quickly as a unit and learn his new defensive system, which he is going to stress throughout the pre-season. But he added that there won't be any quick fix to the club's woes of recent years.

"You guys (the media) are the ones saying the Leafs should blow this up and start over, and then you're talking about we have to find a way to win within two weeks," Wilson said. "It's not the way it's going to be. We have to be very, very patient and build this the right way.

"We have to go through a process. It may be painful. I hope it isn't. But we're prepared for all the bumps and pratfalls and potholes in the road ahead. I'm prepared for it anyway, or I wouldn't have come."

The general consensus is that the rebuilding Leafs -- who have only two players on the roster (Niklas Hagman and Nik Antropov) who managed 20 goals or better in the NHL last season -- likely will miss the playoffs for a fourth consecutive season and could finish with fewer than the 83 points recorded last year (last in the Northeast Division). But that's just fine with the current crop of Leafs who hit the ice today for the start of training camp.

"We have to prove people wrong, and to use that as motivation," forward Matt Stajan said. "But our whole dressing room believes that we can do a lot better than people give us credit for. And that's fine. We'll play that (underdog) role. We have nothing to lose. We're going out there and play as hard as we can and hopefully prove everybody wrong.

"We're going to have to play as a team to win hockey games, we know that. We don't have a top-flight guy like a Mats Sundin. We have a lot of good players who can score goals. We're going to have to play a good system and score by committee. And I think everybody is excited for the challenge."

Another returning forward, Alex Steen, said the club has two things going for it heading into the season -- speed and hunger.

"We're a frustrated team, we haven't been in the playoffs for three years," he said. "Especially in a city like this, the playoff atmosphere is so unbelievable, it's something you want to be a part of. So we're looking to get back in that picture -- at least take a step toward doing that."

Wilson also pledged that the blue and white would be prepared properly for every game and that soft play would not be tolerated.

"The remedial part of hockey is blocking shots and playing hard in your end and that's the message to our team," he said. "Nobody is going to be excluded from that because, on the best teams in the league, the best players do that better than anybody. And we have to get all our players committed to doing that."


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