Push is on for Leafs

Brian Burke notes that the depth he has added up front already has some Leafs worried about job...

Brian Burke notes that the depth he has added up front already has some Leafs worried about job security. (Sun Media/Andre Forget)

STEVE SIMMONS, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:00 AM ET

WOODRIDGE, Ill. -- Brian Burke walked past the weight room at the Air Canada Centre a few weeks ago and, for the first time, saw some tangible evidence of how the culture of the Maple Leafs is changing.

He counted 28 players working out in mid-July and Burke pulled a veteran aside and asked him how many would have been in the weight room a year ago last summer. The answer: Five.

"I think we've done two things since I came here in November," said Burke in between practices at the Team USA Olympic orientation camp. "One, the culture has changed ... But the single biggest thing is the job security issue. Last year, everyone came to camp and the question was: "Who are they going to play with?" Now the question is: "Am I going to play?"

Burke would love to change more with the Leafs, but has yet to make a move on a high-end, top-six forward. He has a deep defence, more than $4 million US in salary cap space and some creativity to offer, but thus far he hasn't been able to pull off the kind of deal the Leafs require.

"Fans ask me on the street: 'Who's going to score the goals?' It's a legitimate question," Burke said. "Last year, we were 10th in the league and I believe you're entitled to some internal improvement. (Mikhail) Grabovski should be better. (John) Mitchell should be better. (Matt) Stajan should be better. (Niklas) Hagman scored 20 goals and missed 17 games. I don't think it's unrealistic that if Nik stays healthy, he can score 25, maybe 30."

That's the upside, without adding a forward in a trade.

The downside: Nik Antropov, one of the Leafs' leading offensive players, is gone, and Jason Blake, who led the club in goals and points last season, did much of his scoring playing alongside Dominic Moore, who no longer is a Leaf.

Burke has no interest in the unsigned Alex Tanguay, but has his eyes on some teams with cap troubles, including the Boston Bruins, who basically are straddling the cap without having signed star forward, Phil Kessel.

When asked if anything was going on trade-wise, Burke said "it's pretty slow. But I hate answering that question because it can change with one phone call."

Assuming the call doesn't come, the Leafs will open camp in September with a different frame of mind -- and body -- than in the past several seasons.

"To me, the No. 1 thing is you can tell guys are nervous," Burke said. "I like that. There are 28 guys in our weight room for a reason. The guy who wasn't there last year is thinking: 'Maybe I don't have a job. Maybe I have to prepare better.'

"You look at the centre position. You got Mitchell, you've got Stajan, you've got Primeau, you've got (Rickard) Wallin, you've got Grabovski. That, you're going to have to sort out. You look at the list of centres, it means someone is going to be sitting next to me (in the press box) on opening night."

There are other goals Burke has set, among them cutting down the Leafs' league-worst goals against average. He wants to allow at least 41 fewer goals than a year ago. But even improving that much will move the Leafs into only 22nd in the NHL. Realistically, a 60-goal reduction would be necessary for this team to be considered anything other than fodder.

Starting goalkeeper Vesa Toskala is coming off a horrible season and his backup, Swedish rookie, Jonas Gustavsson, has never played an NHL game.

"I'm betting on Vesa," said Burke. "I liked him in San Jose. I like the way he stood up to me this year. I like when players do that. I called him and he said he was hurt. He has three surgeries at the end of the year.

"I'm counting on a big bounce back year and I also feel last year he wasn't pushed enough.

Hopefully, we have a healthy Vesa and a goaltender who will push him and that will help."

Burke is excited to see the new Leafs kids -- Gustavsson, 2009 first draft pick Nazem Kadri, free agent signings Christian Hanson, Tyler Bozak and Robert Slaney and big winger Viktor Stalberg, a sixth round pick in 2006 who has spent the past three years at the University of Vermont.

"I love that Nazem Kadri says he's going to make our team," Burke said. "I love that attitude. We're perfectly prepared to send any player on a one-way contract to the minors if someone beats him out.

"That's a critical factor for us. We need that pressure from below. We need people pushing for jobs. If you don't have that, you don't have desperation. We need that to get to the next level."


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