Survival of the fittest for Leafs

STEVE BUFFERY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:40 AM ET

TORONTO -- Training camp doesn't begin until Sept. 12, but Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke has already thrown down the gauntlet, issuing a stern warning to his players yesterday.

"One of the biggest problems last year was the sense of entitlement here," Burke said yesterday, at a media conference to introduce new Toronto Marlies head coach Dallas Eakins.

"I want every player under contract to realize that I will not hesitate to send a player on a one-way (contract) to the minors if he's not prepared (to play hard)."

Burke, who made numerous off-season acquisitions, particularly on defence, said there is now more depth in the organization and with increased depth comes less job security. At this point, the second-year Leafs GM said he is not looking to make any more changes to the roster, but he still has a couple of million in cap room and an glut of defencemen, so nothing is etched in stone.

"I'd like to see a little bit Darwinian theory at work at training camp and see who wants to play here," said Burke. "If something materializes that made sense, we'd look at it. But for us to make the playoffs we'd need eight (defencemen) minimum. Right now we're at a higher number than that, so we can let those guys sort that out."

One defenceman Burke expects to be in the opening day lineup is veteran Tomas Kaberle, who was once thought to be on his way out of Toronto. Kaberle has a no-trade clause but because the Leafs failed to make the playoffs last season, Burke has until Aug.15 to deal him. That, however, will likely not happen. Burke has made the Leafs bigger and tougher, but Kaberle brings an offensive element to the blueline that the club needs, especially on the power play.

In fact, Burke said he is "excited" to see what Kaberle can do with some of the veteran defencemen he acquired in the off-season, particularly Mike Komisarek and Francois Beauchemin.

"Say your first (defensive unit) is Kaberle and Komisarek," said Burke. "Kaberle is not picking his teeth out of the glass all night (anymore). I'm excited about that. There's some notion that everyone has to be tough on a hockey team. They don't. You have to surround your skill guys with enough size and toughness that they can play their game. And I think that's what we've done."

Burke reiterated his belief that the club's so-called skill players -- Mikhail Grabovski, Jason Blake, etc -- could enjoy excellent seasons because they are now surrounded with sandpaper.

"I believe that toughness and fear are contagious," the GM said. "And I think we have some young players that got kicked around last year for no good reason at all. And I count on improved performance from some of those kids just because we're bigger and meaner."

Kaberle, 31, struggled at times last season, managing just 31 points in 57 games, less than half from his career high of 67, recorded during the 2005-06 season.

Despite the fact that Burke concentrated mainly on shoring up the defence and goaltending (with the acquisition of free agent Jonas Gustavsson), he firmly believes that the Leafs are stronger than they were at this time last year.

"Our defence has improved, our goaltending should be better with a healthy (Vesa) Toskala and with the Monster (Gustavsson)," he said. "I think you can put (our defence) up against virtually any other group in the league, and I think we can count on some progression with our young forwards.

"But we'll see," Burke added. "Certainly our goal is to make the playoffs and if this group isn't good enough to do that, we'll make more changes."

The club also announced that former Leafs forward Derek King has been hired as an assistant coach with the Marlies.


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