Optimism high as the rebuilding Maple Leafs head east for training camp
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TORONTO — With the World Cup of Hockey occupying attention at the Air Canada Centre some 14 kilometres to the east, the Toronto Maple Leafs opened their centennial season somewhat under the radar Thursday.
The team's media day was a subdued affair with general manager Lou Lamoriello hardly working up a sweat in an eight-minute appearance before a smaller than usual gaggle of reporters at the team's suburban practice facility before heading for a plane and the start of on-ice activities Friday in Halifax.
"I like it," Lamoriello said with a smile when asked about the lack of media crush. "Last year we had the Blue Jays, now we have the World Cup."
Still there are big plans for a storied franchise looking to restore its lustre. The festivities include a Jan. 1 outdoor date with the Detroit Red Wings at BMO Field.
Centre Nazem Kadri is looking forward to returning to action.
"Clean slate, new logo, new season," he said. "I think we're going to feel like a new team. We know what's expected of us, we know how to prepare ourselves and how the coaching staff likes to prepare us. I think we're going to be re-energized right off the bat and I think we could surprise a lot of people."
With a youth movement led by top draft pick Auston Matthews, who has been turning heads at the World Cup, and a sprinkling of on-board veterans, the 2016-17 Leafs have a chance to give success-starved fans something to celebrate, according to 33-year-old forward Brooks Laich.
"It should be a very competitive team that has a chance to win every night," he said. "And I'm not just making this up. I'm not going to blow smoke at you.
"I think it's a very exciting time to be a player for the Maple Leafs and I think it's a very exciting time to be a fan for the Maple Leafs."
The Leafs go into training camp with 79 players on their roster, including 47 forwards, 25 defencemen and seven goaltenders.
"I think it's going to a very competitive camp," said Lamoriello. "We do have depth in just about every position at different levels."
All will head east for camp with the exception of the players competing at the World Cup and those sidelined by injury.
The walking wounded include veteran winger Joffrey Lupul, who starts camp on injured reserve. Lamoriello said Lupul, who missed the final 31 games of last season, is still feeling discomfort despite undergoing sports hernia surgery in February.
The 29-42-11 Leafs posted the worst record in the league last season, finishing out of the playoffs for the 10th time in 11 seasons.
The franchise jettisoned veterans and blooded a string of young talent during the year while looking to install a new work ethic under coach Mike Babcock. It was often a painful process with the team ranking 27th in goals for (198) and against (246). Its minus-48 goal difference ranked 29th.
Kadri, who ranked 125th in league scoring, led the team with 45 points (17 goals, 28 assists).
But fans kept the faith in Babcock, Lamoriello and president Brendan Shanahan.
Babcock, busy with Team Canada coaching duties at the World Cup, was absent Thursday. But Laich said the coach's presence is still being felt.
"He's everywhere," he said. "He pops in on days where we think he's going to be busy with Team Canada and he pops in and makes his rounds and says hi to the guys."
Assistant coaches D.J. Smith and Jim Hiller will run camp in Babcock's absence.
"It will be a different voice for a week but not different language," said Lamoriello.
Laich said there will be no cutting corners in Babcock's absence.
"If you take a break, he'll hear about it and I'm pretty sure you won't be wearing a Maple Leafs jersey," he said.
Eight Leafs are taking part in the World Cup: Matthews and Morgan Rielly (North America), Milan Michalek and Roman Polak (Czech Republic), Leo Komarov (Finland), rookie Nikita Zaitsev (Russia), Jhonas Enroth (Sweden) and James van Riemsdyk (U.S.).
Newly acquired goaltender Frederik Andersen was slated to play for Europe before suffering an upper-body injury that kept him out of the World Cup. He is expected to be ready for the start of the season.
"He's progressing," said Lamoriello. "We're certainly not going to rush anything ... He has had no setbacks."
Team video coach Andrew Brewer and equipment manager Brian Papineau are also with Team Canada.
Toronto's first pre-season game is Monday against the Ottawa Senators at Halifax's Scotiabank Centre.
"It's been a long but fast summer, if that makes any sense," Kadri said. "I think everyone's just eager to drop the puck."
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