For the Leafs, believing is a start

BILL LANKHOF, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:51 AM ET

They will be fun, they will be different, they will be fast and they will be learning.

They are the four cornerstones upon which your Maple Leafs will try to build a new destiny.

Nearly half the players who wore the uniform last season are history, footnotes in the 2008-09 fact book. It is a team that will go into Detroit for tonight's season opener carrying all the baggage of Kim Cattrall on a one-night stand.

It is a team with nothing to lose except a lousy reputation. It is a team without an upper hierarchy. Coach Ron Wilson expects to go with four lines, and from No. 1 down to the ambitiously-labelled Energy Line, there isn't a lot of difference.

"We're a team with big ambitions and everybody here is going to get a chance to step up," Alexei Ponikarovsky said yesterday. "It's not like we have some guys above the rest. Every line is pretty much even. Everybody here is equal."

Some might suggest equally inadequate. But, let's not get catty before the first official give-away. The players know just about everyone not collecting a team cheque, is picking them as canon fodder.

"I don't listen to any of that stuff about not making the playoffs," Ponikarovsky said. "It's a good atmosphere here and we're trying to build a group that will stick up for each other."

In the dressing room there is laughter, even horseplay, where last season it was often morose. It's that light-hearted atmosphere that has most impressed Alex Steen. Sure, there has been talk about the new 1-2-2 system but he will remember this training camp for "just a good group of guys. There has been a lot of humour with the coaching staff and everyone, including all the new guys."

Even Wilson got in on the banter. When asked how rookie Luke Schenn, an 18-year-old from Saskatoon, would fit in the big city, he said the team was going to "make sure he gets plenty of DVDs of Green Acres and maybe The Beverly Hillbillies" to keep him amused. If there is any concern that Schenn will be chewed up by the city's lights and media spotlight, it hasn't surfaced. He seems to have the perfect demeanour, unscathable by the glare of notoriety and almost oblivious to the stir he creates.

Wilson noted yesterday: "If he goes out tonight and knocks a couple of the Wings into the crowd ... assists on the winning goal some of you (will make him out to be) the next Bobby Orr ... just to tear him down a couple weeks later." He said he sometimes feels the media wants players to fail. But he also believes Schenn is mature enough to survive. "From talking to him, we gather he hasn't turned on a computer yet. He hasn't read any newspapers. He hasn't even looked at the TV."

See no evil; hear no evil.

Tactically the biggest change, said Steen, is that Wilson uses a 1-2-2 forecheck instead of the 2-1-2 implemented by Paul Maurice.

"We're trying to be more defensively responsible," Ponikarovsky said. "We're playing a more collapsing defence with the wingers going a bit lower ... but it doesn't take away from the offence. You can still get quick transition from it."

It's a blend of systems used by the San Jose Sharks and the Detroit Red Wings. All the Leafs have to do is to learn and master it with equal precision.

"Responsibility is the key phrase," Dominic Moore said. "It's about defensively ... keeping things to the outside. That doesn't mean sitting back. We're going to have an aggressive forecheck because we have a fast team so that should be one of our strengths; getting in on the forecheck. More than anything, it's a mental thing instilled from the coaching staff until it becomes a team identity."

The Leafs? With an identity other than "Hopeless?" Actually it's not as improbable as it might seem. After all, it was just about this time last autumn when Guy Lafleur was calling the Montreal Canadiens "a bunch of fourth-liners", too. All they ended up with was a division championship. So, maybe the only thing between the Leafs and over-achievement is for Frank Mahovilich to suggest their mothers wear army boots. Or something.


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