After close to six months away from the bench, Ron Wilson shouldn't have been grousing yesterday about too many exhibition games in September.
Sure, the Maple Leafs coach would prefer just five or six outings, then pipe in the 48th Highlanders to drop the puck for real. But these aren't the Detroit Red Wings and chances are Wilson will need all nine contests and every shift of the scrimmage tournament that starts today at the MasterCard Centre to properly assess one of the most anticipated training camps in recent team history.
There are 62 players, with roots extending to four Toronto general managers. High noon is here for current GM Brian Burke's newly hired guns and last year's hold- overs, many of whom heard ad nauseum all summer of their faults.
Wilson, who is expected to lead in "changing the culture" as Burke puts it, has to solve a Scandinavian riddle in goal, balance skills and sluggos on defence and sort out top- and bottom-six forwards on an offensively challenged team. Oh, and fix the chronically wonky power play and the NHL's worst penalty-killing.
The panacea that Burke and Wilson were to preach again at a camp dinner last night at a downtown hotel was simple -- everything starts with home security.
"We won't be pushed around," Wilson said. "That's not about beating people up, which everyone seems to think we're going to do. It's having competitive people in that room pushing each other to get better every day.
"We believe we have enough talent here to set the playoffs as a goal. There's a different sense around the team right now with the players we brought in."
If the Leafs do indeed assert themselves in areas such as their own blue paint, then a surgically repaired Vesa Toskala and rookie Jonas Gustavsson will have a better comfort level in goal.
If a forechecking foe knows he must answer to Mike Komisarek, he won't be so quick to take an extra shot at Tomas Kaberle, a defence pairing Wilson likely will unveil today.
Young blue-liner Luke Schenn won't have to keep donning that ill-fitting policeman's hat to fight everyone's battles for them, and forwards such as Mikhail Grabovski can operate in what Burke called "a fear-free environment", assuming Komisarek, Grant Exelby and Colton Orr have the desired effect.
Those new players can expect some competition from incumbent rogues Jamal Mayers, Andre Deveaux and Ben Ondrus, but Wilson has ordered a fighting ban, at least until the pre-season games.
The best reason to be in Etobicoke this week will be to compare the rookie camp stars -- Viktor Stalberg, Tyler Bozak, John Slaney, Christian Hanson and goalie Gustavsson -- against the veterans in four consecutive games starting Wednesday.
"We have a lot more players who are deserving of exhibition games than last year," Wilson conceded.
"I'm sure you'll see four or five of those kids play a heavy load in the first four games. Some of the players going to Scotland (on a tour with the farm team Marlies on Sept. 22) will play in the early games, too."
On Friday, Burke said he was prepared to ship millions of dollars in salary to the minors if he detects any players aren't buying in. Yet, Wilson knows his boss can make too fine a point when he gets worked up.
"He'd really have to do a pretty good dance to clean up some (roster) space," Wilson said with a grin. "(But) in the past four or five years (in San Jose and Toronto), I've probably had the youngest team in the league.
"I wouldn't hesitate to do the same thing here, thinking of the future as long as it doesn't deter us from the goal of making the playoffs."