Early on, Maple Leafs are still in transition, not turmoil

TORONTO -- Richard Peddie apologized for the state of his office on the sixth floor of the Air Canada Centre.

"I'm in the midst of changing floors," said the CEO and president of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment.

His office, much like his hockey team, is in transition.

The NHL's most valuable franchise, worth $448 million according to the latest Forbes ranking, gutted most of the veterans from its roster in the offseason and made no bones about the road ahead.

Gone are Bryan McCabe, Darcy Tucker, Andrew Raycroft and Kyle Wellwood, among others, and for now, and perhaps for good, captain Mats Sundin.

The new faces include Mikhail Grabovski, Niklas Hagman, Nikolai Kulemin, John Mitchell and impressive rookie defenseman Luke Schenn.

Mix in the odd hockey vagabond like Dominic Moore, who is trying to make the best of his first crack at a regular NHL job, and you have a mix of youth and blue-collar talent that has already won over some with its work ethic.

Every blip of minor success in the opening month of the season has been enough to light up Leaf Nation. After a 3-2 victory over the rival Senators this past Saturday night, a Toronto reporter breathlessly asked Ottawa captain Daniel Alfredsson what he thought of the "surprising Leafs," 3-2-3 at that point of the young season.


A 3-2 home loss to Tampa Bay on Tuesday night was followed by a wild 6-5 victory in New Jersey on Wednesday to wrap up October above the .500 mark at 4-3-3.


"The one thing about Toronto, there's always exaggeration, normally generated by the media," Leafs GM Cliff Fletcher told ESPN.com this week.

"In this market, we had a great game against Detroit, and [everyone thinks] there's going to be a parade for God's sakes," said coach Ron Wilson, who is in his first season behind the Leafs' bench. "Then we have two not-so-good games, and everybody thinks you're never going to win a game again."

The Leafs are two points ahead of last season's pace after 10 games, but they might as well be 20. The major difference is that this roster isn't underperforming. It boasts almost the same record as last season's roster through 10 games, but there's a far different reaction in the world's biggest hockey market: No one on the ice is getting booed.

"This summer, when it was suggested that we may not win five games all year, [that] we were just a terrible team, well, we knew we weren't a terrible team," Fletcher said. "We knew we had some pretty good young players, we thought our goaltending would be very good and we thought our defense would be more than competitive.

"We knew weren't going to be a very good team, but we didn't think we'd be terrible."

Said Peddie: "We set expectations very low, very legitimately. It wasn't a phony thing. That was our expectation."

But that's the thing about low expectations. An opening night victory in Detroit against the Cup champs and recent back-to-back wins over Boston and Ottawa had some people in Toronto mentioning the P-word.

"On the other side of the coin here in Toronto, you're never as good as they say you are when things are going well," said Fletcher, whose crafty moves helped the Leafs reach back-to-back conference finals a decade and a half ago during his first tour of duty here.

"You got to put things in perspective. This is a team that's starting from scratch almost. We're trying to build a team here that over the next three years will be able to compete with any of the other teams in the league. This is just the start of the process. While we're excited about what's going on so far in the first few games, we're realistic that this is just the first stage."

If the point was to gut the roster, get younger, lose a bunch of games and hope for a lottery pick in the June NHL draft, Fletcher might have made one critical mistake -- he might have hired too good a coach. Wilson absolutely thrives on maximizing the most from talent-challenged rosters. Just look at his previous stops in Anaheim and Washington for the proof.

"Before I took the job, Cliff sat me down and showed me all the holes in the lineup and told me they'd be young guys filling those holes," Wilson recalled.

"There were like six holes, blanks. He says, 'Can you coach this team?' I looked at it and I said, 'Who's filling in the blanks?' And he says, 'More young guys, maybe a few free agents, but mostly young guys.' And I said, 'Yeah, of course I can coach that team. In fact, I think it would be a real challenge.'"

The Leafs won't score a lot of goals this season and likely will miss the playoffs, as expected. But you can bet they'll be a pain in the butt to play against, a hard-working team that will make the opposition earn every inch of the ice.

Because he inherited essentially a no-name roster, Wilson has brought his form of socialism (it is Canada, after all) to the dressing room. The team's highest-paid forward, former 40-goal scorer Jason Blake, was a healthy scratch on Oct. 23. Center Matt Stajan, deemed captain material by some local pundits, also was left behind for a game. Defenseman Carlo Colaiacovo has played only four games. Others have also followed suit this season.

"Yes, I've bruised a few egos, and to be honest with you, they're overinflated ones," Wilson said. "I said at our first meeting of training camp that there won't be any special treatment. Everybody will be treated equally. If you worked hard, you'll play. You will decide your ice time, I don't. I honestly believe that. And I've tried to be true to my word."

The message has been understood -- loud and clear.

"He's making a statement," Blake said. "Obviously, there's no free passes. It doesn't matter if you play 10 years or not, I guess. You have to be ready to go every single night. There's a message being sent around the locker room. You got to make sure you're ready to play.

"It's not very much fun sitting in the press box watching a hockey game. It's been nine years for me since the last time it's happened, but it's one of those things. You have to make sure you play like you can."

Said Stajan: "It's never fun to sit out. I think any player would say that. But you just have to come out of it with your head high and work hard like you always do. And make sure that you don't let it happen again. Don't give him a chance to be able to do that again."

Every player in the Leafs' dressing room knows he can't relax for one second.

"I think every player has to have the mindset that every shift you have to win it," Stajan said. "Maybe to get his message across, he had to do what he did. I don't know if that's the case. But it's obviously worked, and everybody is going right now."

The coach has made his point, but we doubt it'll be the last time this season.

"They know that I will put anybody down," Wilson said. "This isn't like I've sat down superstars or anything like that; these guys, if they were playing for the Detroit Red Wings, might not even be in the lineup. And that's the way I view this team. Everybody is going to have to work and pitch in. I think that makes it fair for everybody.

"I'm trying to create a positive culture for this team."

The concern among some Leafs fans is simple: Either be bad enough to receive a lottery draft pick or surprise us and sneak into a playoff spot. But nothing in between, please.

Easier said than done.

"You can't tell a coach and a general manager who have had the winning records these two guys have had or, for that matter, a bunch of young men, 'Oh, we want you to lose this year,'" said Peddie, whose hockey team last made the playoffs in April 2004. "You can't do that. People say, 'Tear up the team and make them lose.' You just can't tell them that.

"We don't want those players if they're losers. We did what we thought was right."

Finishing 30th is not the cure-all some people make it out to be, Wilson said.

"We could finish dead last and not win the lottery. People forget that. We could finish fourth from the bottom and get the No. 1 pick," he said. "A team that turned things around relatively quick would be the Montreal Canadiens, and they didn't bottom out. I don't know if there's a perfect plan."

Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.