Leafs young and eager

Leafs GM Brian Burke is leaning on younger players like Viktor Stalberg for the rest of the season....

Leafs GM Brian Burke is leaning on younger players like Viktor Stalberg for the rest of the season. (QMI Agency/Greg M. Cooper)

MIKE ZEISBERGER, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 9:34 AM ET

Looking down from the TD Garden press box at the 6-year-old kids stumbling and bumbling all over the ice during a first intermission youth hockey exhibition Thursday night, one press box wag could not hold his tongue.

"Look at the Leafs playing down there," the sarcastic chap said. "I knew they are young but that's ridiculous."

Bad pun, buddy.

But the guy did have a point.

These new-looked Leafs are, in fact, young, albeit not 6-year-old young.

In fact, looking around the Maple Leafs dressing room prior to their game against the host Boston Bruins, it was almost like being in the company of a junior-A team.

This is not the way Brian Burke wanted it when he took over as general manager 15 months ago. He was willing to give the Matt Stajans, the Alexei Ponikarovskys, the Jason Blakes, the Lee Stempniaks every opportunity to build a winning tradition in Toronto.

"I didn't come in looking to blow things up," Burke said Thursday night. "I gave that group a chance."

They failed.

And now they're gone, replaced by a bunch of kids Burke says "have a 20-game audition to show what they can do."

Of the 20 players who dressed Thursday for Toronto against the Bruins, 10 are 25 years old or younger. The youth movement is especially evident up front, where seven of the 12 forwards have yet to reach their 26th birthday.

Burke solidified things in goal -- at least he thought he did -- when he traded for J-S Giguere in late January. And with the additions of Dion Phaneuf, Francois Beauchemin and Mike Komisarek since last summer, the blue line seems much more solid, at least on paper.

Up front? Inexperience every where you look.

Burke is not going to panic. Far from it. As he said Thursday: "We can address the forward position on July 1" when the free agent market opens.

With names such as Canadian Olympic gold medallist Patrick Marleau a pending unrestricted free agent this summer, there will be plenty of intrigue and rumours.

In the meantime, the Leafs will go with their Kiddy Corps, as evidenced by the five rookies in coach Ron Wilson's lineup Thursday.

But the house cleaning conducted by Burke and his staff is much more than just a youth movement. It is very much a case of "out with the old, in with the new."

No more country club atmosphere. No more Muskoka Five.

Sure, Tomas Kaberle is still around, having played 800 career games in blue-and-white. But do you know who is the second-longest serving Leaf in terms of tenure?

Hands up, those who guessed Nikolai Kulemin, who has suited up for the Leafs 131 times.

Ranking third is defenceman Luke Schenn, who has played 129 games. The same Luke Schenn who was drafted by the Leafs just 21 months ago. The same Luke Schenn who is all of 20 years old.

Talk about changing the face of a franchise.

"I think there are only five guys still left from when I first joined the team (for the 2008-09 season)," Schenn said.

"There is no question the position we are in (in the standings) is not fun. At the same time this is an opportunity for a lot of the young guys."

This much is certain: You won't be able to identify these Leafs without a program.

Maybe that's not a bad thing.

Maybe for some youngsters such as Viktor Stalberg, who scored in the first period against the Bruins, this will be a coming-out party. Ditto for fellow rookie Tyler Bozak, who scored the other Toronto goal in their 3-2 shootout loss.

Whatever happens, Burke knows this much: It wasn't working the old way.


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