Thursday, September 14, 2006

Mats will be Maurice's go to guy

TORONTO (CP) -- The Toronto Maple Leafs made plenty of changes for the new NHL season and one that is about to happen might have the most favourable impact of them all.Mats Sundin will get more playing time.The big Swedish centre can expect new head coach Paul Maurice to have him on the ice well in excess of the nearly 20 minutes a game he logged last season. The onus will be on the captain to lead the Leafs' bid to return to the playoffs."I've always had players in those roles play an awful lot of minutes relative to the rest of the league," Maurice said during the opening day of training camp Thursday. "The three TV time-outs during games, charter flights, better nutrition -- all those things point to your better players playing more."The biggest thing though is that there's not the same price to be paid to play hockey as there was two years ago. Mats Sundin, to get to the front of the net two years ago, had to give back five sticks by the time he got to the bench. The wear and tear on these guys has changed."Fitness tests and off-ice workouts were the order of the day in the freezer that was Ricoh Coliseum. A handful of players including off-season free-agent pickup Pavel Kubina donned pads and skated. Most have been training in groups for weeks, so everybody looks to be near game-ready shape. Nobody was puking on the exercise machines.On-ice drills begin Friday, and the first exhibition game is at Air Canada Centre on Monday night against Buffalo. The regular-season opener is at home on Wed., Oct. 4 against Ottawa.At this stage, Maurice isn't fretting over who skates on the first line with Sundin."Who Mats plays with is not the most important question to answer," Maurice said. "He's going to play with a lot of different people over the course of the year."There's times you leave lines together because you know there's chemistry there and you want to let them work through it, but we'll ask Mats to be our best player most nights and if the people around him aren't going then you make adjustments.
Mats Sundin is here to make the players around him better, and he's good enough to."There'll be no camp scrimmages, said Maurice."It's almost like play-fighting with a friend and I don't care for it," he explained. "A short camp forces you to work on systems."NHL training camps were shortened to 20 days this year."I think it's still too long," new Leafs centre Mike Peca said with a grin. "Players are coming into camp in such great shape ... it's plenty of time."Regardless, Maurice's main goal is to make this a quicker team. After all, it's the trend around the league given the strict crackdown on obstruction fouls that is in force.He's not making any bold predictions."It's a dogfight now for everybody to get into the playoffs," he said. "My biggest concern outside of hockey is controlling the emotional rollercoaster our team will go on based on the interest in the team."That's part of being here -- managing that rollercoaster. I understand that we're going to be in a dogfight to make the playoffs. That's hard for home-town fans to hear but it's the (reality) of the NHL" now that the salary cap's levelling of player hiring capabilities has promoted parity.There's been nary a discouraging word about Maurice since he replaced Pat Quinn, but he insists he has yet to feel the weight of the heavy expectations of Leafs fans on his shoulders as he prepares to return to an NHL bench for the first time in 2.5 years."I know it's coming, but I don't feel any pressure yet," he said. "If you're going to win on the big stage, there's going to be some pressure there to do it."The main competition in camp will be for two or three defence spots and a handful of third- and fourth-line wing positions."I don't think there are clear frontrunners in a lot of areas," said Maurice. "A player who did a great amount of work this summer can really change his game."I would expect great competition. The change in the game where the players aren't physically asked to grind is the biggest advantage our young kids have. We don't have to wait two years for a player to physically mature. If you can come in and skate and jump into plays you can be a good player in your second year. There's more room for young players to come in and be impact players."

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