Leafs to hit the ice running

Maple Leafs defence prospect Josh Engel shows the strain of Friday's physicals. Engel is likely...

Maple Leafs defence prospect Josh Engel shows the strain of Friday's physicals. Engel is likely bound for a return to the AHL's Marlies this season. (MICHAEL PEAKE/QMI Agency)

ROB LONGLEY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 9:42 PM ET

TORONTO - Forget the feel-good stories and the promising prospects, Ron Wilson is ready to get down to business.

The past has, for the most part, been ugly here in Toronto for his three seasons as Maple Leafs coach, so Wilson will let others worry about the future.

Accordingly, from the opening whistle, when the 70 players invited to training camp hit the ice Saturday morning, the auditions will be kept to a minimum.

With no more than a couple of roster spots open, this isn’t a tryout. Instead, it’s a fast-track to get ready for the quick start that will be so imperative for the team to do any damage in the improved Eastern Conference.

“What I’ve stressed with management, when Wednesday rolls around, we’re going to be down to 40 guys,” Wilson said Friday at the MasterCard Centre where the team reported for physical testing. “By next weekend, we’ll be down to 26 or 27 players.

“I’m cutting right through all the B.S., and getting right down to the NHL players. I’m not worried about where we are going to be in two or three years. My primary responsibility is this year and getting off to a quick start.”

While Wilson’s boss, general manager Brian Burke, repeated the new company line — that no one Leaf today is responsible for more than four decades of futility — there’s little doubt that the heat is on from many directions.

Not only has the team missed the playoffs for the past six seasons, it has been on the outside for each of the three springs that Wilson and Burke have been running the show.

“Those were teams that failed,” Burke said of the Leafs squads prior to his era and the franchise’s Stanley Cup drought dating back to 1967.

“This group is accountable and responsible for what they’ve accomplished since they put on the sweater here.

“We’re not focussed on failure from past decades. It’s a weight on our team and we’re trying to get away from it.”

Burke said he planned to hammer that message to his team at a meeting Friday night, then hand the reins back to Wilson for the first of three on-ice sessions scheduled for Saturday.

And it won’t take long to determine whether the players get the message.

The coach will begin his fourth season in charge with a pair of new assistants — Scott Gordon and Greg Cronin — plus returning Rob Zettler.

Working on the assumption that the campers are already in shape, Saturday will begin with scrimmages, giving management a chance to see which players are worth keeping around beyond the middle of next week.

What’s the rush? The team begins its eight-game pre-season schedule Monday night against Ottawa at the Air Canada Centre, the first of three in a row and four in five nights.

Beyond that, of course, the premium will be to get off to a quick start and be a factor early and consistent enough to remain competitive.

“Camp is so short, you have to come together quickly,” second-year captain Dion Phaneuf said. “You have to get off to a good start. We had a bad (first) month last year and in the league today, you can’t recover. It’s just too tough to make up those points.

“We want to be a playoff team and it starts today.”

Wilson will need some bodies around to get through the first few pre-season contests, but once down to a more manageable number, the real coaching begins.

Priorities? There are at least a few.

Wilson said Friday that improving the penalty-kill will rightfully be at the top of the list. Special teams should be the focus by the middle of next week as the Leafs staff will get a chance to see what newcomers Tim Connolly, John-Michael Liles and Cody Franson have to offer.

The roster battle of note entering camp has already been made clear: Who will claim the spot on the third line with Colby Armstrong and Tyler Bozak?

Nazem Kadri enters camp as the front-runner but is expected to have competition from Joe Colborne and Phillipe Dupuis.

Wilson added another name to that mix on Friday, suggesting that even Matthew Lombardi, who could soon be cleared for contact, has a shot at opening the season on that line.

“If he gets healthy and is ready for the start of the season, I think I’d like to integrate him slowly, so he could very likely be the left winger on that line,” Wilson said.

Both Wilson and Burke once again stressed the need for James Reimer to pick up where he left off last season in net.

“Goaltending has been, since I have been here, a little bit of an issue,” said Wilson, who must wake up in a cold sweat when Vesa Toskala creeps into his dreams.

“A great goalie can smooth over a lot of rough edges and make some mistakes in front of him. If you don’t trust your goalie, your confidence sinks and that probably happened to us late October and early November last year.

“We were never confident as a team with the goaltending we were getting at the time and when (Reimer) came in and stabilized our goaltending, you saw the potential of our team.”

The morning started with good news — that defenceman Luke Schenn signed a five-year, $18-million US deal just in time to go through the nauseous physical testing with his teammates.

He may only be 21, but Schenn has been here longer than many of his teammates as he prepares for a fourth season he anticipates will be his best yet.

“I’m not going to predict anything for sure, but we are definitely on the right track,” Schenn said. “Since I’ve been here, there is no question that we are more competitive now then we’ve ever been.

“We all want to be in the playoffs and no doubt we are sick of watching it every year.”


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