Same old Leafs? Think again

BILL LANKHOF, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 11:00 AM ET

TORONTO - The quarter-pole passes for the Maple Leafs this weekend and the numbers would suggest not much has changed.

The old nag is still lagging behind out of a playoff spot, the special teams are often anything but special, the team sniper is just coming off a game in which he was benched, they still haven’t found a win in Buffalo and the chorus of “Same Ol’ Leafs” is tuning up.

But while it might not yet be evident in the standings, these are not the same old Leafs.

“Before I think there was a bit of complacency. I won’t say there were guys who accepted losing but maybe they didn’t do everything in their power and didn’t have the work ethic. For some, losing was almost acceptable,” defenceman Luke Schenn said on Thursday, looking back on his arrival in Toronto three winters ago.

Schenn is just 21 but already third in seniority behind only Tomas Kaberle and Nikolai Kulemin in games played in blue and white. He has seen the team go from the Mats Sundin era, when Tie Domi was still king, through the Matt Stajan misadventure. He was here with Alexei Ponikarovski and Nik Antropov and watched that morph into Kris Versteeg and Dion Phaneuf.

“Only three, maybe four guys, are left from 21/2 years ago when I first showed up. Lots of new faces. The big thing is we have guys who want to be here.”

He doesn’t point fingers. Exactly.

But talent alone doesn’t a winning club make or Toronto wouldn’t have to look back to 1967 before finding a championship. Larry Murphy had talent. Booed here. Won a Stanley Cup in Detroit. Sundin had talent and might have won one elsewhere had he been willing to try. Grant Fuhr couldn’t win in Toronto. Even Pat Burns, headed to the Hall of Fame one day, never got to tipple champagne as a Leaf.

“It’s definitely not just about having enough talent,” said Versteeg, who as a member of the Cup champion Blackhawks experienced the making of a winner. It was about more than Patrick Kane. It was about more than a goaltender with a hot hand. Championship teams often have something that binds them together.

That something is not always definable.

“You have to believe. In Chicago every guy believed in the guy next to him. We had a talented team but it was more than that. It was a team that was tighter than any team in the league. It had a spirit of togetherness that we’re trying to build here on and off the ice.

“I don’t know if we’d have won if we hadn’t had that cohesiveness or whatever you want to call it,” said Versteeg, “and that’s what I’m starting to see here, too.”

When he arrived as the fifth overall pick in 2008 Schenn was a quiet kid from Saskatoon who grew up a Leafs’ fan. Since then he has added about 20 pounds and buckets of perspective. When this team welcomed November on an eight-game tear-jerker, it just didn’t feel as bleak as it once might have. Instead of the inevitable surrender to futility, it snowballed into three wins in seven days.

“There isn’t a lot of baggage here from the past,” said Schenn, whose 22.55 minutes a game ranks behind only Kaberle and Francois Beauchemin. “Five or six years ago a lot of the guys here weren’t even in the league. We hear about it from fans and media that the team hasn’t made the playoffs but most of us haven’t been here very long so it’s nothing we could do anything about.”

Goalie Jonas Gustavsson says there’s a growing camaraderie.

“We’re all young and even the older guys like Kabe,” he said, laughing, “like our music. There’s a lot of energy.”

As late as the start of 2009, everyone was in the same leaky Leafs boat. Everyone sweated about it. Everyone was rowing. They just weren’t all necessarily rowing in the same direction.

“We’re trying to develop a winning attitude. The one thing about this team is that everyone hangs out together,” Schenn said.

It worked in Chicago, Versteeg said. It can work here. “When you have that chemistry off the ice, it sometimes helps out on the ice, too.”

That’s the curious thing about the Maple Leafs of yesteryear. They always wore the same sweaters but they weren’t always a team, exactly.

“At home you don’t see it so much because guys have families they go to, but on the road the one thing I noticed my first year guys would go out for dinner and you’d see three or four guys here, three or four in another spot. Guys went in their own directions,” Schenn said. “Also, guys from different nationalities had their own cliques. Now I feel everyone is asking each other what they’re doing and it doesn’t matter who you’re with everyone is involved. We’re closer as teammates.”

All of which makes for a warm and fuzzy story. But, it isn’t going to mean a lot unless they find a way to show it on the ice. Buffalo. Tonight. It would be a good place to start.


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