September 7, 2010
No guarantees, but Burke likes these Leafs'We're definitely a playoff team'
By ROB LONGLEY, QMI Agency
MARKHAM -- Brian Burke wasn't about to foolishly walk the plank of guaranteeing a playoff spot for a team that hasn't been there in five seasons.
But the Maple Leafs general manager gave his ringing endorsement to the near pronouncement delivered by the first captain the team has had under his watch.
"We're definitely a playoff team," said defenceman/captain Dion Phaneuf at Angus Glen Golf Club prior to the team's annual charity tournament. "Our goal at the start of this season is to make the playoffs.
"Anything short of that is unacceptable."
Spoken in true Burke bombast and style.
And spoken with the easy optimism of a team that won't officially break training camp for another 10 days.
There has been precious little that has been acceptable about the Leafs the past two seasons, in particular since they last made the post-season.
But if Burke has anything to be enthused about, it is that the attitude adjustment that was needed to varying degrees almost since the day he came here a season and a half ago may at long last be taking hold.
"You mention the 'p' word and it sets people off in this marketplace," Burke said prior to the shotgun start in support of the MLSEL Team Up Foundation. "That's our goal. That's our intention. No bold statements. But for a player to say that, I think it's great."
If you've heard him talk about "Blue and White disease" once, you've heard it a hundred times, but Burke has a point: Pampered athletes are bad enough, but pampered athletes not good enough or driven enough to make the playoffs are hard to take.
The setting on Tuesday may have been a golf course (insert your own Leafs golfing joke here), but the players already seems to be in full training camp mode. NHL teams don't officially break camp until Sept. 17, but the entire team has begun working out informally at the Mastercard Centre and will continue to do so until the coaches are allowed to join in the fun.
Once camp starts, it will be business in a hurry. After three days of practice to kick off camp, the Leafs will play pre-season games on five consecutive nights.
For some, it can't come soon enough. The true barometer of team cohesiveness and culture change can't be taken for real until the first crushing body check levelled in anger, but Burke has a good feeling.
"I think we're getting to my kind of team, finally," Burke said. "A team that's really hard to play against and puts a prize on making teams pay a price.
"I think we have a group that's much more committed to winning than we have had in the past."
It would be pretty much impossible not too, wouldn't it? And really, shouldn't effort and desire be the minimum job requirements of a highly paid professional?
Once the purge of the final remaining veterans was completed at the trade deadline, there was a noticeable change in tenor around the team, however. While that won't put pucks in the net, at least Burke and Wilson were able to identify and endorse leadership candidates, which led to Phaneuf being named captain earlier this summer.
"We've got an entirely different room in terms of leadership," Wilson said in the Angus Glen clubhouse. "It's huge. We want to come out of the gate -- and it won't be too hard to do -- better than we did last year. I feel real positive about our chances."
While Burke was unable to land the sexy scoring forward that is the team's most glaring need, the re-tooling has pressed on. Bottom six forwards Mike Brown and Colby Armstrong add some toughness and in former Chicago Blackhawk Kris Versteeg, the Leafs have added a top-line forward who is a recently proven winner.
"I like a rough, crude team," Burke said. "I like a team that's difficult to play against, that makes you pay a price. We need it to be a building that people come into with some trepidation. Where guys (on the other team) are in the warmup saying 'Geez, it's going to be a tough one tonight.'
"We haven't had that. I think we have that now."
Those still around would have to be shockingly dense not to realize that whatever poor attitude helped contribute to the recent run of ineptitude no longer will be tolerated. And if nothing else, it only adds to the intrigue of training camp and the start of the season -- now less than a month away.
"I don't really want to look at last year, nobody does," said defenceman Francois Beauchemin, who like fellow blueliner Mike Komisarek, struggled early in his Leafs tenure last October. "It's not something that we want to think of every day. We want to go forward.
"I think having everybody here 10 days before training camp is going to be a big factor too. We're going to work out all week, so when (camp opens) we'll all be on the same page."
It will matter far more what he does on the ice, but Phaneuf has struck almost all the right notes from the moment he arrived here at the trade deadline last March.
To much fanfare, he seized control of the dressing room, but his behind-the-scenes work this summer may hold even more significance. He invited rookie Nazem Kadri to spend time with him at his P.E.I. summer home and each new acquisition has been in steady contact with the new captain.
"We are going to carry over what we did at the end of last year when we played some very good hockey down the stretch," Phaneuf said. "With that we learned a lot as a group.
"We're going to be a hard-working team night in and night out."
His general manager would have it no other way.