Hard times making Leafs' young guns stronger

TERRY KOSHAN, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 7:18 PM ET

One day, and it doesn’t really matter whether he’s captain of the Maple Leafs, Luke Schenn can envision himself lifting the Stanley Cup over his head to the heavens.

What Schenn and his other young Leafs teammates are enduring now are the hellish times that they hope will one day make them stronger and well-prepared for a long playoff run.

With John Tavares and the New York Islanders up next at the Air Canada Centre on Tuesday night, the Leafs have won six of their past 10 games, even taking into account the tough 1-0 loss in a shootout to the Ottawa Senators on Saturday.

A playoff berth in the Eastern Conference is unlikely this spring, but there’s a positive attitude that permeates the dressing room.

It’s a fresh outlook that comes with being among the youngest teams in the National Hockey League.

As of Saturday, only the Colorado Avalanche had a younger group.

“The biggest thing is guys in this room are looking to be the answers themselves,” Schenn said. “They are not waiting for more turnover and to bring more people in to get this thing going here as an organization and start winning.

“I think all guys in this room want to be the guy. You’re going to get some outside help, as I am sure this is not going to be the team set in stone, but these guys want to be the ones to turn this around.”

Defenceman Tomas Kaberle represented the final link to the past, and not just on the ice. Kaberle, even when he wasn’t a grizzled veteran, was not one of the guys reporters would see in the dressing room in any sort of equipment, and usually only was present when requested for an interview.

Not every Leaf was like that in years past, but it wasn’t out of the ordinary.

With the Leafs now, some players outlast the reporters in the room after practices.

It’s clear they enjoy each other’s company and, at a collective age of 26 years and three months, the majority don’t have some of the outside commitments that older players might.

Point is, they’re growing as one, and that isn’t lost on them.

“It’s something we have talked about all year,” captain Dion Phaneuf said. “We’re learning together, winning together, losing together, going through the ups and downs together, and that’s exciting when you have a young team.

“Whether they are good or bad times, you are going to learn. And I think we have done that this year. We have had some slides, but there have been positives. It makes you stronger.”

General manager Brian Burke has cleared some cap space with trades, and he’s looking to add a defenceman before the clock strikes on NHL trades in one week.

Though Burke will be in the free-agent hunt on July 1, the core of young players as it stands probably will be part of the 2011-12 Leafs.

The bigger question might be whether Ron Wilson still is around to coach them.

That aside, the 21-year-old Schenn, who’s developing into the kind of player and person to be the next captain if Phaneuf eventually moves on, simply is glad the dark days might be mostly in the past.

“Starting out when you are 18 and being around losing, it is no fun, and being honest, it was tough the past couple of years,” Schenn said. “Now, it is starting to be a little more exciting. You’re starting to see the upside we have and the potential, guys coming in here and working hard.

“Everyone has a great attitude. One day, it’s going to happen for us.”


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