New attitude facing Leafs

Leafs' Nikolai Kulemin battles with Sabres' Matt Ellis during first period action at the ACC on...

Leafs' Nikolai Kulemin battles with Sabres' Matt Ellis during first period action at the ACC on Sunday. (Sun Media/Ernest Doroszuk)

LANCE HORNBY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:51 AM ET

On the surface, it might seem little has changed with the Maple Leafs roster from another inglorious exit last April.

They have added one new scoring forward, who might not even change the makeup of last year's top two lines. Some new checkers and fighters. Two and possibly three new defencemen of note, but up to four returnees of the group who were culpable to the worst goals-against average in the league.

On that topic, the same goaltender is pegged as No. 1, ending on the wrong end of a 7-6 loss to Buffalo last night in the final pre-season tune-up at the ACC. The back-up is a 24-year-old who has not played a real NHL game.

In truth, the "change in culture" that Brian Burke and Ron Wilson talked of at the start of camp is here and it has become culture shock for the team and its fans and a right to be more excited about this club than at any time since the lockout.

As they headed north to Huntsville last night, there is some depth, some buzz and yes, some hope for playoffs, born of a new vision and fuelled by one of the club's best nine-game exhibition showings (6-3) in 40 years. Wilson's team lost twice to Buffalo, but he was pumping up a 6-0 mark against clubs such as '09 Cup finalists Pittsburgh and Detroit.

And if the Leafs can somehow avoid their lousy starts of the past few years, they have Phil Kessel coming off the shelf at Halloween.

As Wilson began making final cuts yesterday, the play of the kids and newcomers had him issuing a challenge to his holdovers.

"In fairness to all the incumbent guys who were brought into the program over the summer, they deserve the opportunity to show us what they're doing," Wilson began. "(But) anybody who has a sense of entitlement here, can sure hear the knocking on the door and it creaking open a little bit. Some guys, without them knowing it, will end up being on a short leash, because it's about us winning up here.

"If we feel the young guys within a couple of weeks are the ones (wanted in Toronto), if others don't answer the bell, we won't hesitate to make changes."

Burke has said he has the green light from Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd. to ship hefty salaries to the Marlies if need be, but that doesn't seem likely after most got the message in camp.

The heat is still on winger Jiri Tlusty, who didn't dress last night and while slow-starting Nikolai Kulemin began in his customary spot with Mikhail Grabovski, he was moved aside as Viktor Stalberg capped his amazing camp with his team-leading eighth and ninth points. Kulemin responded with his first pre-season goal and added an assist on Matt Stajan's wing.

Vesa Toskala's September ended on a downer with seven goals on 24 shots last night, but it was the Leafs' worst defensive effort of the exhibition schedule.

"Vesa will be starting Thursday, so there's no controversy here," Wilson said.

At least until Jonas Gustavsson proves he's more than a three-period wonder.

Stalberg had a goal and assist last night, but there's not room to include his Frat Pack pal Christian Hanson (sent to the Marlies yesterday) or Tyler Bozak, who is still a Leaf for now.

Nazem Kadri was returned to the OHL as expected, but those projected to make the team in specific roles didn't disappoint; certainly Francois Beauchemin, Mike Komisarek and Garnet Exelby on defence, Wayne Primeau, Rickard Wallin and Colton Orr up front. Two unlikely players remain in the mix because of injuries, defenceman Carl Gunnarsson and scrapper Jay Rosehill.

"Any of the young people we had played outstanding," Wilson said. "But we knew coming in it would be difficult for any one or two guys to make our lineup. We're fairly deep. Yes, some veterans haven't played as well as hoped, but some of the young guys have played twice as many games."

With 29 players still in camp and only 23 healthy bodies able to be activated for the season opener on Thursday against Montreal, there are still some tough decisions coming. As many as three might be on injured reserve.

LANCE.HORNBY@SUNMEDIA.CA


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