Uneasy atmosphere for Leafs

ROB LONGLEY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:34 AM ET

HUNTSVILLE -- For every Viktor Stalberg charging into the season with optimism and potential, there is a Jiri Tlusty or a Nikolai Kulemin doomed to head the other way.

Like the leaves here in Ontario's cottage country, the Maple Leafs are changing emphatically in coach Ron Wilson's second year at the rudder of the struggling NHL team.

Yesterday at Jack Bionda Arena, Wilson unveiled the likely lineup for tomorrow's home and season opener against the Montreal Canadiens. Depending on performance, however, it might not be the one he'll ice as soon as 48 hours later.

"The pressure right now is you have to perform every night," Wilson said after the team's first serious preparation for the season now that the roster is approaching the 23-man limit. "It's an intense, internal competition but that's only going to make us better.

"I've already made my mind up for opening night, but it could change for Saturday night in Washington."

It's a far cry from a year ago when the Leafs entered the season light on talent, depth and character.

Wilson said it was "like kindergarten" a lot of days in that rotten 2008-09 season, the fourth consecutive season that ended with the Leafs missing the playoffs.

The summer acquisitions by general manager Brian Burke have helped upend that culture, building in toughness and competition for jobs. That and a new attitude, a mindset preached in their three-day retreat at a resort here.

"It's not like that any more," Wilson said. "It's an entirely different feeling around the team."

Veterans, who at times suffered through the transfer to Wilson a year ago, came to camp in much better shape. Draft picks and college free agents arrived ready to battle for a job.

The best of those newbies was Stalberg, whose six goals led the NHL in the pre-season. After entering training camp as one of three NCAA grads with an outside shot at cracking the lineup, he has vaulted all the way to the freshly created top line.

The 23-year-old skated alongside Matt Stajan and Jason Blake yesterday at an energetic two-hour practice at the home of the junior-A Huntsville Otters.

Stalberg's scoring touch, matched with Blake's speed and Stajan's playmaking, make for an intriguing trio for Wilson. The coach said that because of his speed and defensive skill, Stalberg also will see duty on the penalty-kill unit.

"Obviously I took someone's spot and they (will) want to take that back pretty soon," said Stalberg, a late pick by the Leafs in the 2006 draft. "It's going to be a battle to stay up here all season long."

Wilson, who wasn't shy about benching veterans on occasion last year, is taking an early stand by benching a couple of youngsters he had hoped would emerge as legitimate NHL scorers. Quite bluntly, Tlusty and Kulemin have underachieved the past two weeks and will sit against the Habs.

"They didn't play well in training camp and other guys did, simple as that," Wilson said.

Goaltender Vesa Toskala will start tomorrow, but Wilson made it clear that the Finn best not get too comfortable. With a save percentage of .860 in the pre-season and the Monster, Jonas Gustavsson, in the room, Toskala will need to perform.

"I think (Toskala) feels the heat right now," Wilson said. "He may not admit it, but I know if I was in those shoes, I would be saying: 'Gee, this guy (Gustavsson), I haven't seen a crack in his armour yet.'"

Wilson is sticking with the gospel of Burke that the Leafs should be playoff contenders and has done the math as to what it will take. The coach believes "12 or 13 more points" better than last season's 81 will get the job done. Which players will be involved might well be a work in progress.

"This is all about making the playoffs and being successful once you get there," Wilson said. "If we've got people who can't handle the internal competition, how are they going to handle the external?"

ROB.LONGLEY@SUNMEDIA.CA

LINEUPS

Projected starting lineup for the Maple Leafs' opener tomorrow against Montreal based on yesterday's practice.

FIRST LINE

Viktor Stalberg-Matt Stajan-Jason Blake

SECOND LINE

Niklas Hagman-Mikhail Grabovski-Alexei Ponikarovsky

THRID LINE

John Mitchell-Rickard Wallin-Lee Stempniak

FOURTH LINE

Jay Rosehill-Wayne Primeau-Colton Orr.

EXTRAS

Tyler Bozak, Jiri Tlusty, Jamal Mayers, Nikolai Kulemin.

DEFENCE

Tomas Kaberle-Mike Komisarek

Luke Schenn-Francois Beauchemin

Garnet Exelby-Ian White

GOALIES

Vesa Toskala

Jonas Gustavsson


Videos

Photos