Old-time hockey in Toronto

LANCE HORNBY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:36 AM ET

Remember all that preaching by the Maple Leafs, about thre e-to-five-year plans, ignoring playoffs, bottoming out and restructuring like the Pittsburgh Penguins?

Never mind.

Brian Burke is now in charge and, true to form, he has pressed the fast forward button and critics be damned. But for now he has provided lots to back up the bluster, restructuring a wonky defence into a group that won't get snow kicked in their faces.

After having few recognizable forwards to start last year, the Leafs will have a healthy Niklas Hagman, Mikhail Grabovski, Matt Stajan and Alexei Ponikarovsky coming off career years and lots of youth, led by 36-goal winger Phil Kessel's return in November. The price for Kessel was two first-round picks and a second, but the hue and cry about mortgaging the future isn't too loud, when seeing the depth added at no cost in Viktor Stalberg, Tyler Bozak, Christian Hanson and firstround pick Nazem Kadri, on top of the free agent defencemen and sophomore Luke Schenn.

Schenn won't have to fight everyone's battles this year, with Colton Orr, Garnet Exelby, Mike Komisarek and a few others on sta* handy with their dukes.

But the Leafs won't be playoff contenders unless the goaltending steals points as it used to in the days of Curtis Joseph and Ed Belfour. Vesa Toskala, who unwisely tried to play through lower extremity injuries last year, looks recovered.

The Leafs also signed Jonas Gustavsson, Sweden's top club team goalie.

Th e Leafs are better, but is it enough to make the top 16?

Sun Media enlisted the help of a former NHL playerturned- coach for in-depth analysis of this year's team:

FORWARDS

Last year, they were 10th in the NHL in goals and yet did they really have a true sniper. Now, not only will they have Phil Kessel, but also they have the ability to spread their scoring around.

Hagman (who missed almost 20 games last year) Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin are all guys who can score at least 20. Grabovski looks in better shape, he can skate and might be the most adept as Kessel's centre. But there's no Marc Savard here. It's a big year for Ponikarovsky. He went way up in points (a career-high 61), now he has to show he can score more than 23. The third and fourth lines are so intertwined. Sure, you want guys who can score, but the guys in that role have to be plus players who won't get scored upon. I expect John Mitchell to centre the No. 3 line and all the skaters they have on their fourth line, such as Wayne Primeau, are going to be big.

DEFENCE

This is the huge difference; clearly quality is in this year. Komisarek started the allstar game last year and he'll be at the Olympics. Francois Beauchemin played on a Stanley Cup winner two years ago and though he was hurt most of last year, he played in all the Ducks' playoff games. Th ose two alone could probably play half the game for you.

Tomas Kaberle looks a lot more fit and he's a great match with Komisarek.

As a team, they were last in goals against in the league and you can trace a lot of that to the penalty killing and having few big bodies such as Luke Schenn to move people in front.

If you toss out Jonas Frogren and figure that Mike Van Ryn will play more -- he impressed me last year more than I thought -- it's a pretty good group with Jeff Finger and Garnet Exelby. And Ian White showed me more than I expected last season.

GOAL

Not only will Toskala do better after his operations, he's going to have a couple of good goalies behind him. Gustavsson was amazing in their rookie camp and didn't look uncomfortable on North American ice. People forget that Joey Mac- Donald played ver y well for the Islanders and he's looked pretty g o o d here for the Leafs in camp with Gustavsson hurt (a minor heart operation). Whatever the case, both will push Vesa. All of them will be working with (goalie coach) Francois Allaire, who is among the best teachers in the league.

COACHING, MANAGEMENT

The big thing for Ron Wilson this year is that most of the team came in already in shape under his program, something he couldn't control last season. Last year. he was new and he let the players play to a large degree to see what he had. Now he can go right to laying in some structure in camp. I think this team is going to discover what it takes to win, from both Ron and Brian.

INTANGIBLES

A good start is really essential for this team -- it has killed them in the past, falling behind the 8-ball. What they do without Kessel in the opening weeks is important. They've been awful a lot of nights on home ice (16- 16-9 last year) and need to be sharper on special teams, thought that's a reflection of goaltending. I think they're knocking on the door of a playoff spot.

lance.hornby@sunmedia.ca

PLAYERS TO WATCH

FANTASY POOL HERO:

Phil Kessel

UNSUNG HERO:

Francois Beauchemin

TOUGH GUY:

Colton Orr

SLEEPER:

John Mitchell

ROOKIE TO WATCH:

Jonas Gustavsson

ON THE DECLINE:

Jamal Mayers


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