Leafs net half full

ROB LONGLEY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:35 AM ET

Leafs goaltender Vesa Toskala knows there will be nights this season when his workload will require some serious heavy lifting, but it could be worse.

He could be looking out at the Leafs of 2007-08.

"I don't think there can be more mistakes than we made last year," Toskala said yesterday after a spirited 90-minute practice at Lakeshore Lions Arena in advance of tomorrow's season opener in Detroit.

"I think it's going to be a lot better. Now we have players here who want to really improve. I think that's important and I don't feel we had that last year."

Toskala wasn't alone in that view, obviously, as the Leafs that open the season against the Stanley Cup champs will have at least 10 new faces in the lineup. After the off- season housecleaning and a busy training camp, at least 10 of them will be under the age of 25.

The team continued that process yesterday by putting defenceman Staffan Kronwall and forward Boyd Devereaux on waivers while keeping forward John Mitchell, forward/defenceman Ian White and defenceman Jonas Frogren.

When Toskala starts tomorrow, he expects a team in front of him that will work hard and unlike last year be committed to improvement.

"We have a fast team, obviously much younger than last year," said Toskala, who last year lost the No. 1 job to Andrew Raycroft for a short spell. "It's going to take some time, but I really feel we are going in the right direction and I think that we are going to be much better than people give us credit for."

With such turnover, the Leafs could be confused by some as an expansion team. But coach Ron Wilson says with youth on his side, that label would be a mistake.

"An expansion team is rarely young, they're usually old like last year's (Leafs)," Wilson said. "That was an expansion team in a real sense. With expansion teams, you don't get quality young players to work with and I think I have that here."

Wilson re-iterated yesterday that he won't stick with players in key situations just because of their age and/or experience. Instead, he will look big picture and stick with the process.

"If I don't play young guys in tough situations, they aren't going to improve," Wilson said. "If I rely on veterans who have maybe not got it done in the past just because they are veterans, you are overlooking the development part.

"I've been in this situation three or four times as a coach, where it looks bleak and you just focus on the little details and things turn around in a hurry."

Wilson's track record with such teams was a big reason for his hire, a trait general manager Cliff Fletcher can relate to from his own career heyday in Alberta.

"Ron has coached an expansion team before and he has coached young teams and seen them develop," Fletcher said. "I've been in that process in Calgary. Back in the '80s, we looked 180 miles up the road and saw this juggernaut, the greatest hockey team in the history of the NHL, probably. But we caught them and eventually we won a Stanley Cup.

"Going by that model, that's what our goal is here."


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