Pre-Season Report

  Toronto begins their campaign after last spring's run to the East finals, where it fell to the Cinderella Hurricanes. The ensuing offseason saw the Leafs lose goaltender Curtis Joseph to Detroit via free agency, but his shoes were filled by two-time Vezina winner Ed Belfour.

    The volatile 37-year-old, who backed Dallas to the 1999 Stanley Cup, has suffered through back-to-back off years with the Stars, but Toronto hopes a simple change of scenery will return him to form. Belfour, who had backup Marty Turco breathing down his neck in Big D, went 21-27-11 a year ago with a 2.65 goals-against average and .895 save-percentage.

    Besides the signing of Belfour, GM/coach Pat Quinn went out and obtained veterans Tom Fitzgerald and Robert Svehla to join a solid cast led by captain Mats Sundin and Russian sniper Alexander Mogilny. The club will, however, be without gritty winger Gary Roberts, who is expected to be sidelined until February after offseason shoulder surgery.

    Sundin, who finished fourth in the NHL with 80 points (41g, 39a) last season, is approaching two significant
milestones. He is three goals shy of becoming the first Swedish-trained player to reach 400 goals, and just 58
points shy of 1,000.

Leafs Falling on Hard Times

 The Toronto Maple Leafs play hockey with sticks but, as captain Mats Sundin sees it, the tools of the their trade have become shovels.  Lax defensive play and turnovers led to another loss Monday night, 4-1 to the Boston Bruins, dropping
Toronto's record to 2-4-1-0.
    ``We're digging our own grave,'' said Sundin.

    Fans began walking out of the Air Canada Centre during the third period, when it became obvious the Leafs were not going to beat a determined, tight-checking Bruins. With nine minutes left, some of those remaining began to boo. At the end, less than half the 19,133 were in their seats.

``It's tough to win hockey games at this level if you're going to play the way we are right now,'' said Sundin. ``There's a lack of urgency in our game.
   ``It's almost as if we think the offence is going to take care of it for us and win us hockey games. That's not the way we've been winning hockey games here the last three or four years.

``We've been playing pretty good defensively (in the past). We have the horses here. We have four lines that can score goals for us but right now our only concern should be making sure we play better defensively.''

While much of the pre-season concern centred on the goaltending, whether Ed Belfour would be a suitable replacement for the departed Curtis Joseph, the team's poor record can't be blamed on Belfour. He has a .930 save percentage.  The problem is that he's getting too little support.

``I feel bad for our defence and for Eddie,'' said Sundin. ``Defensive play involves the whole team.  Right now, we're leaving the goalie and the defence by themselves. Starting tomorrow we just have to make sure we play good defensively. The offence can take care of itself.''

    Only seven games into the new season, the Leafs find themselves near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings.

``We're concerned,'' said Sundin. ``At the same time, I look around our dressing room and we have a good hockey team here.  It's as good as it's been the last few years but we won't win games by just putting our skates on the ice and thinking we're going to outscore the opponent. It won't happen.  There's no team that can do it. You've seen other talented teams out there that have missed the playoffs the last few years trying to play that way and it doesn't work. I just hope we learn our lesson here in a hurry and we get back to playing the way we can and the way we have the last couple of years.''

Coach Pat Quinn will drill his players on better defensive play in preparation for a home game Wednesday night against the clawless Florida Panthers. It will be the second game in a six-game home stand.

Quinn might be wise to consider breaking up the defence pairing of Tomas Kaberle and Robert Svehla. Kaberle's shortcomings in his own zone are obvious, Svehla is slow, and the two together leave opponents too much room around Toronto's crease. They were on the ice for three of Boston's goals.

But, as Sundin said, it takes team defence to win, and that involves the forwards, too.

``We have to talk to each other more and play as five-man groups,'' suggested Kaberle.  ``We can't play three and two. We're not going to win games like that.''

Forward Mikael Renberg, still without a goal to his credit, said the players are working hard but not playing smart hockey.

``There's a little bit of frustration right now but we've got to stay calm and keep working,'' he said. ``I'm sure it's going to turn around.  I don't think we should panic. We know we have a good group of guys. We haven't played good so far but if we keep working, eventually it's going to come for us. I know that.''

Added centre Alyn McCauley: ``We're concerned. We can certainly play better, and we need to. I guess the positive part of it is that we have an opportunity to do that. If you're at the end of the season and haven't learned yet, then there would be more reason for concern.''

The line of Sundin, Alexander Mogilny and Darcy Tucker has combined for 30 points. That early-season success has fed the false notion that the Leafs can win by playing wide-open hockey.

``We've got to start recognizing that it's not great plays that win in this game,'' said Quinn.  ``It's doing the little things well that wins games, and we're not doing those little things

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