Op-Ed: Hockey's Back - Toronto Maple Leafs Open Training Camp Today

Posted Sep 19, 2008 by Nawest Vazquez
You see that guy? No, not Dan Cleary, fool. The psycho fan. While I'm not sure it's even possible, I might be more excited than him today. Hockey. Is. Back.
That's right friends. After a long, long off-season, apparently not long enough for some people, training camp opens today. Players won't be hitting the ice as physicals and fitness tests are the order of the day but, well, still. Hockey is back.
A New Era
For the first time since the lockout-shortened 1995 season, Mats Sundin will not break camp with the Toronto Maple Leafs. He won't be there tomorrow, and that's pretty messed up. While I have made peace with Sundin's summer of indecision and will support any decision he eventually makes, it's going to be strange seeing the Leafs prepare for the new season without their captain, without their voice, and without their leader.
If Mats comes back, great. If he goes elsewhere, I hope he finds happiness and a ring along the way. What I don't want is for Sundin to be the topic of discussion at camp. He shouldn't be. He's not here. The douchebags who cover the Leafs, also known as the main stream media need to let the Sundin story die, because it's no longer a story. When the man makes up his mind, he'll let us know. The post-Mats Sundin era officially begins today. It's time to look forward, and no longer back.
I'm looking forward to getting a look at some of the new kids on the block. Is Nikolai Kulemin the real deal? Will Jeff Finger absolutely crumble trying to play up to his new contract? Will Mikhail Grabovski prove to be an addition over Kyle Wellwood? God knows it won't take much.
I'm looking forward to seeing how Jason Blake responds after living through a year of hockey player hell in Toronto. I'm looking forward to seeing Niklas Hagman in a Leafs uniform - can he put up another 27 goals? I'm looking forward to finding out whether this is the year Alex Steen becomes a star, and whether Nik Antropov can play another season relatively injury free (he played 72 games last season, tying his career high).
I'm looking forward to seeing the development of Anton Stralman and Jiri Tlusty. And looking forward to less - actually, zero - nudey Tlusty pictures. I'm looking forward to seeing hometown boy Jamal Mayers suit up in the blue and white, and seeing Pavel Kubina pick up where he left off last season. I'm looking forward to watching the Poni Express ride again, and another magical season from the greatest defenceman in the league Tomas Kaberle, hopefully the next captain of our beloved team.
Speaking of the captaincy, the next person who brings up Matt Stajan in the discussion is getting a kick to the groin. Stajan is crap. He is not captain material. He never will be. I'm afraid he'll never be anything more than a third-liner (not that there's anything wrong with that).
I'm looking forward to seeing how Vesa Toskala does between the pipes. He was awful in camp and the pre-season last year, and this team needs him like a crackhead needs a hit: every freaking night. He must be consistently consistent.
I'm also looking forward to seeing Curtis Joseph back in a Leafs uniform. No hard feelings, bud.
Most of all, I'm looking forward to some defence.
"Everyone in Toronto - from the fans to the media to the players - seems to be concerned with who is going to score. I'm more concerned with preventing goals."
- Ron Wilson
Damn. Imagine that.
Unbridled Optimism
I'm excited about the Leafs' chances this season, which should come as a surprise to absolutely no one. I think they'll be better than a lot of people expect them to be. Just like I have the last three years (and we all know how those season's ended).
Honestly, though, I'm thinking we can fight for that last playoff spot again, you know, like we normally do. Last season, the Leafs finished with 83 points (Florida had 85, how ridiculous is that?) carrying the deadly virus known as Andrew Raycroft, who, lest you have forgotten, won only two games all year. Think about it, Raycrap actually started on opening night last year. Raycrap. On opening night. With Vesa Toskala on the bench. Against Ottawa. I still can't believe it.
With expectations, both internal and external, for this year's Maple Leafs so low they are actually below the ground, I figure I might as well call them to surprise the world and squeak into the playoffs. If I'm right, I'm the smartest mother sucker on the planet. If I'm wrong, my awful reputation, err, credibility as a pathetic homer only improves. It's a win-win situation. To tax the saying from the Toronto Blue Jays blog-o-sphere: PLAYOFFS!