Leafs want to avoid another collapse

ROB LONGLEY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 11:05 PM ET

There will be 63 players on the ice when the Maple Leafs start training camp for real on Saturday morning, the vast majority of them of lower priority for coach Ron Wilson and his staff.

Not out of slight, mind you, but somewhat out of necessity.

Of course, Wilson and the rest of Leafs management want and need to see how the prospects who just finished the rookie tournament in London stack up against the big(ger) boys.

There will be battles for a number of forward positions and an opportunity for rookies — most notably Nazem Kadri and Jerry D’Amigo — to play their way on to the team.

Don’t forget the never-ending search to find someone not named Phil Kessel who can put the puck in the net.

And yes, it is important to see the degree of depth the team has for future reference and development.

At the risk of stating the obvious, however, the most pressing concern for Wilson is to have the core of his team prepared avoid the collapse of the 2009-10 regular season when the Leafs stumbled to an 0-7-1 start from which they never recovered.

The question, then, is how to approach a training camp bloated both with bodies (38 forwards, 19 defencemen and six goaltenders) and games (nine including five in five nights beginning next Tuesday.)

There is no way all players will play every night, obviously, especially during the ridiculous opening stretch. But for the good of the organization, there is a need to see all of the prospects in game-like situations.

More important though is ensuring the starting group gets enough time working together to make an impact when the bell rings for real.

Camp opens with medicals on Friday morning and a team dinner that night. Then after morning practices the next three days, it is game night after game night and less than three weeks later, the Oct. 7 season opener will be upon us.

For Wilson, it’s tricky business, really. We’re guessing the coach would much prefer half the games and double the practice time so he can actually work on the power play and the penalty kill and line combinations.

As such, it is imperative that practice time be detailed and organized, a strength of Wilson and his assistants Tim Hunter, Rob Zettler and Keith Acton.

There are also the capable hands of Marlies coach Dallas Eakins and director of player development Jim Hughes. And with four pads at the Mastercard Centre, it will be easy enough to divide players into groups as well.

Just how they put together rosters for individual pre-season games will be compelling though. It’s not like the NFL pre-season where you can dress 100 guys, then have your starting units play a quarter before taking the rest of the night off.

So do they go with rookie and Marlie-heavy rosters some nights and close to what is envisioned as the starting lineup on others? Or does Wilson mix and match?

Early in camp, the latter may work but by the final few games, it probably makes more sense to have defensive pairings and at least the top two lines close to set. Again, it will be interesting to see Wilson’s strategy here.

The coach acknowledged last season that it was difficult to get the team ready with such a crowded pre-season. By no means were the Leafs unique in having to deal with the contracted schedule because of the Olympics last season, but when the losses piled up, there was no chance to reset.

A year ago, the Leafs started with four games in the first six days and seven in the first 13. This October, at least there will be a chance to breathe with four contests in nine days and seven in 17.

The Leafs are playing the maximum nine exhibition contests, in part to offer the “free” home game to fans. If Wilson had his choice, I’m sure he’d prefer another form of benevolence.

In pro sports, pre-season anything is often unwatchable. With so many story lines and fresh faces around here, however, there is more than enough reason to take a look.


Videos

Photos