No NHL team has its summers drag as long as the Maple Leafs, so you can’t blame them for getting on the ice a lot earlier than most.
Having missed the playoffs every year since the lockout, they played their last game four months ago yesterday. But with general manager Brian Burke adding new players from March onwards and then bringing in seven more prominent names through free agency and trades since July, it behooves the incumbents to get a head start.
Between 12 and 20 Leafs began working out this week at Lakeshore Lions Arena, with others joining soon.
“You have to come in every year and give yourself an opportunity,” centre John Mitchell said yesterday. “Last year, I came in, worked hard, did the things I wanted to do. But I won’t take this year for granted and say that I’m on the team, blah, blah, blah.
“There will always be young guys coming up. You have to solidify your spot and come in and work just as hard, if not harder, the next year.”
At age 24 and on a team lacking depth up front, Mitchell has a good chance to retain his job. With 29 points in 76 games in his first NHL season, he was part of a Leafs team that led the league in total rookie ice time, but paid the price, too.
Mitchell was not a Burke draft pick, but plays with an edge and certainly has seen what’s happened on Toronto’s defence this summer, where the GM has called in the Marines to address a glaring deficiency in toughness.
“Definitely on the back end we’re a little bigger and rougher,” Mitchell said. “Like Burkie said, it’ll stop Tomas Kaberle from having to pick his teeth out of the glass. It will be good for our team and to protect our goalie, too.
“Hopefully, teams will come in and say: ‘We (hate) having to play against the Leafs tonight’ and their forwards will be a lot more fearful about coming into our barn.
“The main thing is to string wins together, not losses. You lose a game, you really have to strive to come back and win the next one. We’ll lose close ones, but we have a lot of times this year where we play every other night. We have to get back on the horse.”