Schedule has Leafs coach handcuffed

ROB LONGLEY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 2:09 PM ET

In a perfect world, Ron Wilson would start hacking and slashing players today, a move that would greatly ease his job of preparing the Maple Leafs for the rapidly approaching regular season.

But with a week ahead that seems to be far more nuisance than necessity, the Leafs coach has little choice but to keep 60-plus players in training camp for the next several days. Included in that bunch are a couple dozen young men who may have next to no hope of ever playing in a regular-season NHL game.

The reason for the glut of warm bodies? For a second consecutive "exhibition" season, the Leafs have the most absurd schedule in the league. And in large part, they only have themselves to blame.

Tonight at the Air Canada Centre, the team -- or 20 guys in Leafs uniforms anyway -- will play the Ottawa Senators. By Saturday when they play the Sabres in Buffalo, Wilson will have coached his fifth game in five nights.

It's really quite ridiculous that the Leafs have agreed to play the league maximum nine pre-season contests. Only Columbus matches that total -- and one of those is against a Swedish Elite League contest before the Jackets start their regular season.

Around the league most common schedule is six games, which 11 NHL teams will do, followed by seven (10 teams) and eight (six teams). The New York Islanders, meanwhile, feel they can get the job done in five.

The team's parent company, MLSEL, never met a live gate it didn't want to exploit, so it's little surprise the team plays the maximum number. Granted one of them is a Fan's First free game but on in partnership with a soft drink company, but how well is the team served by it? The Leafs are the only team in the league that plays five in a row, a counter-productive pain that takes away from Wilson's primary task.

Remember a year ago when the team was an impressive 6-3 over a similar schedule to significantly raise false hope? And remember how they started the regular season? A void of talent was the biggest factor, but it wouldn't be a stretch to suggest that it was a weary bunch that opened with an 0-7-1 record.

Wilson is doing everything to avoid a similar fate this fall with about as sound a game plan as he can devise.

When camp opened on the weekend, the coach said no more than the league-mandated minimum of eight "veteran" players will appear in the first five contests. Defenceman Tomas Kaberle will play just once, same with No. 1 goaltender J.-S. Giguere.

Just guessing here, but we doubt third-year defenceman Luke Schenn will dress for eight of nine like he said he did last year.

Pity the fans who have to sit through games with too many AHL/ECHL quality players or TSN, which will air Wednesday's game against the Sens coast-to-coast. And don't blame Wilson for the product he ices -- the coach is doing the right thing here.

Little surprise really that just three practice/scrimmage days into training camp, then, that he sounds like a coach who is ready to get down to business and trim that bloated roster.

"I'm not going to spend a lot of time giving people reasons why they are here or not," Wilson said following Monday's scrimmage at the Mastercard Centre. "They have had an ample opportunity in scrimmages or exhibition games to prove what they can do.

"This isn't a baby-sitting service or a kindergarten where you have to give everybody a detailed explanation why you are not on the team.

"Hopefully I can get down to 26 or 27 people by the weekend and it will make my job easier to prepare the team."

After another feisty scrimmage Monday, the players said they are itching to hit the enemy forces in game action this week.

For Wilson, the next five days likely can't end soon enough.


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