Vesa aims to keep No. 1 job

ROB LONGLEY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:45 AM ET

HUNTSVILLE -- It takes a lot to outwardly rattle the chain of Vesa Toskala, the laidback starting goaltender (for now) of the Maple Leafs.

But with the prospect of some serious competition in net with the retooled team, there are a few less links in that chain on the eve of a new NHL season.

"I think all coaches have a shorter leash on a starting goaltender if they have a backup they truly believe in," Leafs general manager Brian Burke said yesterday at the hotel where his team is bunked for a three-night, pre-season retreat.

"So it might be a different scenario than it was last year."

While coach Ron Wilson was quick to douse talk of a goaltending controversy, naming Toskala the starter for Thursday's opener, his struggles on Saturday and Sunday were alarming.

Burke supports the call on Toskala, but the GM also made it clear yesterday that backup Jonas Gustavsson will get significant opportunity to fight for playing time.

Working on a formula that the No. 1 goaltender will start 50-55 games, the Monster will get plenty of chances and could overtake Toskala should he falter.

"We believe in Vesa," Burke said. "We've created competition, but we expect Vesa to start.

"We solved his physical problems. He told me he's felt the best he has in five years so that's not a factor at all."

Of course, Leafs fans are already ga-ga over Gustavsson, who has not allowed a goal in three periods during an abbreviated pre-season following minor heart surgery. His big save on a two-on-none by the Detroit Red Wings on Saturday created an over-the-top reaction in his first Air Canada Centre appearance.

Toskala, meanwhile, gave up a terrible goal earlier in that game then saw seven get by him in an all-round sloppy defensive effort against the Buffalo Sabres on Sunday. In six appearances, Toskala's pre-season save percentage was an inferior .860, following his sub-par .891 in the 2008-09 regular season.

Toskala and Gustavsson will no doubt get plenty of attention from goaltending coach Francois Allaire when the team practises today and tomorrow at a local rink here before returning home for Thursday's curtain-raiser against division-rival Montreal Canadiens.

A golf outing was rained out after nine holes yesterday and there will be a paintball game after practice today, part of the team-building exercise Burke and Wilson feel is important to enhance morale.

"I don't think we had a cohesive team last year, not much unity," Burke said. "I think we had a lot of good people, but I don't think we had people pulling on a rope together and that's what you need to be successful."

One of the activities on tap is a quiz on Leafs history -- presumably leaving out the gory latest chapter of four consecutive seasons missing the playoffs. Burke, who often says a winner is built from the net out, is still optimistic it won't reach five.

"We think we are good enough to make the playoffs," Burke said. "We're stopping short of bold predictions and anything that will end up on a bulletin board. We believe the group (is ready) and if not, we'll get back to work."

ROB.LONGLEY@SUNMEDIA.CA


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