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Thursday, January 17, 2013
Many unknowns with Maple Leafs in short season

Associated Press

The Canadian Press

TORONTO -- Like the surprise in the Cracker Jack box, no one's too sure what you'll get with the Toronto Maple Leafs this season.

Fans just hope it's better than the year before. And the year before that. And the year before that.

But the signs aren't too promising. General manager Brian Burke is gone. Goaltender Roberto Luongo hasn't arrived. And there have been minimal changes to the team that went 35-37-10 and finished 13th in the East.

Toronto won just 10 of 33 games after the All-Star break.

James van Riemsdyk came over from the Flyers in a June trade that reunited defenseman Luke Schenn with younger brother Brayden in Philadelphia. Matthew Lombardi has been shipped to Phoenix.

"Well that's what we're going to find out," captain Dion Phaneuf said when asked if he has a sense of how good the Maple Leafs might be. "We're working towards getting off to a good start.

"I think we've been putting in a lot of good work here. I think our team looks good on the ice. The speed of our practices, the speed of the (Wednesday's scrimmage) was an up-tempo style that we want to play. It's going to start really quick. Saturday night comes very fast. So we're looking forward to it."

Coach Randy Carlyle needs to repair a porous defense, first and foremost. Toronto finished 29th in the league last season in goals against (264). Only Tampa Bay (281) was worse.

Perhaps the good news is the once-proud franchise can only get better after a season with ended with a public apology from the owners.

"We have fallen short of everyone's expectations, and for that we are sorry," Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment said in a newspaper ad. "We take full responsibility for how this team performs on the ice and we make no excuses."

And yet still Toronto fans come.

While the Florida Panthers offer $7-a-seat season tickets, the Maple Leafs' website offers a "Join the Waiting List" tab in its ticket section. The price of a discounted Panthers ticket probably won't get you a beverage at Air Canada Centre.

And while Carlyle looks to up the intensity and focus on the ice, he is also trying his best to change the culture of a team that hasn't made the playoffs since 2003-04. Carlyle took over the slumping team on March 3 with 18 games left last season after Burke fired Ron Wilson in the midst of a 1-9-1 run.

"This is akin to an 18-wheeler going off a cliff," the then-GM said of the team's descent in the standings in announcing the coaching change.

Carlyle debuted in Montreal with a 3-1 win, but the Leafs lost their next five games and the new coach finished with a 6-9-3 record.

This time around, the lockout has robbed Carlyle of valuable time to work with his team. But the new regime is working hard to make changes, and vows to be ready this weekend.

Slogans such as "Mental Durability," "Make Today Count," and "Burn the Boats" adorn the Maple Leafs' dressing room at their practice facility. Carlyle declined to detail the story behind "Burn the Boats," saying some things should remain in the dressing room.

"We believe that there are some things that we can always refer back to," Carlyle said. "And when you start trying to build a culture, we're not any different than anybody else, there are power of positive thinking (tools), there are things that you try to do to bring the group back when adversity strikes."

But goalie James Reimer spilled the beans in an interview with TSN radio.

"(Carlyle) had a story about people crossing the sea to take the treasure," Reimer said. "When they got there, they burned their boats so they either had to take their treasure or die. That's what `Burn the Boats' means."

Reimer, whose season was derailed by a head injury last year, and Ben Scrivens are the goaltending options, while fans debate the merits of adding Luongo -- and whether Dave Nonis taking over for Burke as GM may ease trade negotiations with the Canucks.

Reimer is healthy again, but Scrivens has the advantage of being in midseason form after playing in the AHL.

Up front, the team will look to familiar faces in Phil Kessel, Tyler Bozak and Joffrey Lupul to provide offense, and there are high expectations for van Riemsdyk, who fell out of favor in Philadelphia.

Van Riemsdyk had 11 goals and 24 points in his final season as a Flyer.

"The bottom line is we've got to -- as a team -- put a better product on the ice," Phaneuf said, "and play better as a group."