Leafs bonding off the ice

LANCE HORNBY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:25 AM ET

From a Sunday football potluck dinner to some planned wilderness bonding, the new Maple Leafs want to be closer off the ice to stay closer on the scoreboard.

The Leafs haven't been in playoffs since 2004 or done anything of note in almost a decade, and one of the reasons for that can be traced to poor team fabric.

But general manager Brian Burke and coach Ron Wilson are fanatical about team character -- both in size and soul -- and the two have set about reconstructing "Big Blue," as Burke likes to call it.

The GM assembled the players he thought best exemplified his philosophy: Defencemen Mike Komisarek, Francois Beauchemin and Garnet Exelby, to name a few. Komisarek immediately befriended new partner Tomas Kaberle and Beauchemin hit it off with sophomore Luke Schenn. As the top four blueliners, all looked solid in their first game together Saturday against the Philadelphia Flyers, a night with plenty of fights, and, as a result, power-play and penalty-kill duties.

"With Kabby, we're always trying to build that chemistry," ex-Montreal Canadien Komisarek said yesterday. "I spend a lot of time with him at the rink, but also grabbing lunch or dinner or having him over to my place.

"Ex(elby) lives right across the street and we've had a couple of dinners where the defencemen cook. Ex is quite the chef and made chili for us to watch the Jets and Patriots. I've tried to spend a lot of time with Schenn and Kabby. I'm the new guy, but unity and camaraderie is important."

Just as it was to other Leafs teams, which insisted they, too, were like brothers -- before ending the year a dysfunctional family.

There could be as many as 11 new faces on the 23-man roster next month, joining seven that Cliff Fletcher brought in last year.

The timing of the new arrivals was perfect, as the Leafs unveiled their new $45-million MasterCard Centre, a quantum leap among the best NHL training facilities.

The new West End four pad already has enticed many Leafs to hang out well after business hours, while the envious Marlies must stay on their side of the glass, urged to earn their way across the hall.

A trio of NCAA grads, Tyler Bozak, Christian Hanson, and Viktor Stalberg, enhanced their chances by taking up joint residence at a downtown apartment.

Beauchemin is a rarity, a Leaf with a Stanley Cup ring, winning under Burke in Anaheim with a blue-line group that included Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger.

"I learned a lot from watching them, not only playing, but working out and practising," Beauchemin said. "I'll try to bring that here."

Hearing that he and Schenn were mentioned as the Leafs potential shutdown pair was music to Beauchemin's ears.

"I love the challenge to play against the other team's top line," he said. "Luke is solid, with a good body, makes a good pass, so we should do well together."

Burke and Wilson want the whole team on the same page as the defencemen. With that in mind, the coach has planned a trip to the Huntsville area somewhere between Sunday's final exhibition game against the Buffalo Sabres and the Oct. 1 season-opener against the Canadien. Paintball and survivor games are being discussed around on-ice practices.

Wilson's team brings a record of 3-1 into tonight's exhibition game against the Penguins at the Air Canada Centre. From the fighting spirit to 15 goals for and just 10 against, Wilson is pleased, though far from satisfied.

"If I'd pencilled in a lineup on Sept. 1 of what I thought our team would be at the end, I'm pretty much right on target," Wilson said of his lines, defensive pairings, progress of youngsters and what Vesa Toskala has shown in net. "We'll have organizational decisions to make, based on all the young guys, whether we send them to the Marlies or send (first-round pick) Nazem Kadri back to junior at some point."

Those decisions won't be easy. Nor should they be on a good team.

LANCE.HORNBY@SUNMEDIA.CA


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