TORONTO - The trickle-down effect is starting to have an impact in the Maple Leafs’ dressing room.
The Leafs recently got through the month of November without their usual swoon, despite a raft of injuries to integral players.
A year ago, the collective hurts probably would have sent the Leafs spiralling down the standings. But now, Dion Phaneuf is a lot more comfortable in his job as captain, and though the Leafs are the youngest team in the National Hockey League on most nights, they’re not bereft of veteran guidance.
In the past 10 months, general manager Brian Burke has added Joffrey Lupul, Tim Connolly and John-Michael Liles. None are long in the tooth — Liles is the oldest Leaf, and he turned 31 only a couple of weeks ago — and none have Stanley Cup rings to show off every once in a while. But they’ve played with respected veterans — Lupul with Teemu Selanne in Anaheim, Connolly with Chris Drury in Buffalo and Liles with Adam Foote in Colorado — and the thinking is that has rubbed off.
“The key aspect is the handful of older guys in the room,” Leafs vice-president of hockey operations Dave Poulin said on Wednesday. “It starts with Dion, but Lupul, Connolly and Liles have really helped. Colby (Armstrong) would be part of that too but he has been injured. These guys are real pros, and it’s a savvy group. You take what they have been exposed to in the past, and it’s important.”
What’s happening now is the Leafs aren’t trying to uncover excuses when losses happen. Sure, they were a fatigued bunch against the New Jersey Devils in a 3-2 overtime loss on Tuesday night after arriving at their homes at approximately 1:30 a.m., following a win in New York versus the Rangers.
But when they met with reporters in the room afterward, that didn’t matter.
“I used to play three (games) in three (nights) in the Western Hockey League, and I know this is a higher level, but you just have to find a way to get it done,” defenceman Luke Schenn said. “Every team is so equal in this league.
“We knew the other night (Saturday) versus Boston, we were down going into the third and they got a quick one on us. We could not find life after that. It’s something we have talked about in here — it doesn’t matter what the situation is, we have to battle a full 60 minutes.”
That determination is easier to discuss than develop. Too many times in past years, the Leafs weren’t bothered a whole heck of a lot when they lost games. It’s little wonder Burke has changed every player except three since he took over three years ago. Put another way, none of the players who departed have the kind of glower that Phaneuf has after every loss.
“Kudos to him for getting the right amount of guys in here with that character and will to win,” goaltender James Reimer, a John Ferguson Jr. draft pick in 2006, said. “We’re jelling right now.”
It’s not to say everything is perfect in Leafland. It won’t be until, or if, a Stanley Cup is raised. The Leafs remain a fairly easy mark at the Air Canada Centre, where they are a middling 6-4-3, and the penalty killing is stuck at 27th overall in the NHL.
But the attitude, stemming from Phaneuf and the other vets, has changed. Younger players are picking up on it, and, for the most part, the Leafs are marching through the minefields as one.
“I don’t think we’re ever content, because it’s not a business you can be content in,” Poulin said. “You would like to accelerate the process, but you have to have experience.
“We like the direction we’re going in. The potential is there.”