Maple Leafs off to good start on a rebuilding season
The Toronto Maple Leafs started their 2008-09 season by defeating the defending Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings 3-2, but no one is predicting the Buds will push the Wings off the throne this season.
Going into this season, new coach Ron Wilson -- who became the team's 27th bench boss on June 10 -- is predicting yet another rebuilding year for the franchise that hasn't made it into the playoffs since before the 2004-05 lockout season.
And as all Leafs fans know, this city hasn't celebrated a Stanley Cup win since 1967.
- Talkback Toronto: Will the Leafs win a Stanley Cup in your lifetime?
The season begins without one of the team's all-time great franchise players.
Mats Sundin, the Leafs' captain in recent years, remains in limbo. He hasn't yet officially announced whether he will put his 38-year-old body through the rigours of another 82-game season -- either with the Leafs or another team -- or retire.
Wilson hasn't named a permanent replacement as captain. Instead, the job will be rotated monthly among five players.
At least nine other familiar faces also won't be back, and the Leafs stayed out of the free agent market this summer.
"I could easily shorten the bench, if that's what you want, for some short-term gain," Wilson told reporters this week. "But I'll tell you what: You'll be suffering long-term pain if you do that. We're about developing players."
Wilson is considered to have some skill in that task.
"Ron coached an expansion team before. He's coached young teams and seen them develop," general manager Cliff Fletcher told reporters.
"I know how difficult this is going to be, and I'm prepared for it," Wilson said. "So if you're prepared and your expectations are where ours are in our own minds of what we're trying to do, I can be patient for a long, long time."
But don't mistake patience with tolerance for complacency.
"Anybody who stagnates and doesn't improve himself won't be here," Wilson said. "I don't want anyone around who gets content and stops trying to learn."
Despite the pessimistic attitude, the Leafs do have some bright prospects.
- Some think Vesala Toska will emerge as a top-rank NHL goaltender
- Rookie defenceman Luke Schenn has sparkled in the pre-season and earned a spot on the roster
- Emil Grabowsky had eight points in the preseason, among the league leaders
Wilson said continuing the growth of the young guns will be a priority.
"The most important things I'm a positive teacher and reinforcing positive behaviour, not focusing on the bad things," he said.
James Duthie, host of the NHL on TSN, told ctvtoronto.ca that Leafs fans can expect about 15 to 20 wins per season for the next two years before emerging as a playoff contender.
"If you look down that lineup, it looks like an American Hockey League team lineup," he said, noting that Fletcher himself has said the Leafs only have one top-six NHL forward.
However, Wilson is one of the smartest coaches in hockey and that could make the Leafs more competitive than people think, he said.
But the worst thing the Leafs could do this year is either squeak into or just miss the playoffs, Duthie said. "In today's NHL, you have to be lousy before you can be good."
The Pittsburgh Penguins and Chicago Blackhawks are examples of that.
"I think the Leafs' hockey people have realized that," he said, but there could be pressure from Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment executives to change the plan if the team finds itself contending for the last playoff spot in March.
"That's where Fletcher's job and Wilson's job is to say, 'No, we're staying the course here. We're not going to trade very many draft picks ... and not get caught up in the moment," Duthie said.
As part of the rebuilding, Duthie said the Leafs are better off without Sundin, saying the young guys need a chance to step up and be leaders.
Duthie said fans this season will have to "take pleasure from the small things.
"You're going to have to take pleasure from watching young guys work their butts off ... it will be real interesting to see the reaction in this town. If they're calling for Ron Wilson's head in two months, that's just stupid," he said.
NHL coverage on TSN begins on Tuesday, Oct. 14, complete with the revamped, iconic Hockey Night In Canada theme song.