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Maple Leafs open camp with high standards

Jonathan Bernier and the Leafs players are aware expectations are different this season. AP Photos/The Canadian Press/Darren Calabrese

TORONTO -- One by one, the Toronto Maple Leafs were trotted out to the media as training camp opened on Thursday.

And it was no coincidence that the players were all clean-shaven, some with fresh haircuts.

You see, Papa Lou Lamoriello met with a few core players the previous day, and the message was gentle, yet clearly sent. Just like during his days running the New Jersey Devils, the veteran general manager wants his players to look proper.

"Lou just wants us to be pros. Let's look like pros," goaltender Jonathan Bernier, one of the players in the meeting with Lamoriello, said in French on Thursday. "When you're on the road, always wear a suit. Your haircut, your facial hair, all that stuff."

By Thursday, the word had spread to most of the players.

New Leaf P.A. Parenteau says he had his hair cut shorter just to make sure he passed the Lou test.

It is just one of many examples of how things are changing in these parts. New GM, new coach, many new players and certainly a new approach; the feeling around this group one year later is night and day.

Heck, a year ago, the first day of camp was dominated by a story in the Toronto Star that quoted a Leafs assistant coach saying Phil Kessel was un-coachable.

Kessel is now gone, as are many from last season.

There have been many clean slates with this team over the years, regimes have come and gone and all fallen short of the ultimate goal since 1967.

Who knows if any of this is going to work, but with Lamoriello and Mike Babcock at the helm, you have the sense that there's a plan, a vision, a blueprint in place.

One by one, Leafs players -- some of them unsolicited -- talked about feeling so different this season. They look more alert. And perhaps it's the feeling of knowing that even though the wins may be tough to come by for the rebuilding Leafs, the way of doing things on and off the ice will be the right way.

"The biggest thing with what I've got from my talks with Babs -- I haven't played for him yet -- I've been to two Olympic camps with him, I've seen how he runs practices, meetings, and the thing I took away from there is structure," Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf said. "That's the one word that describes him, that he is very structured. His teams play with a structure that no matter who's in the lineup, injuries, guys moving on, they play a consistent way. So as players, I think that helps you. When you have that structure on your team, our job is to put the work in and we'll see where that takes us from here."

Babcock held court with the media Thursday and looked majestic in doing so. But one does have to wonder how a guy who is all about winning is going to deal with the lack of winning this season and perhaps beyond.

"When I arrived in Anaheim, they had missed the playoffs by 25 points," said Babcock. "When I arrived at the University of Lethbridge, they had never made the playoffs in their nine-year history. You just do what you do. For me, I'm proud to be here today. You have no idea. I'm excited to be the head coach of the Maple Leafs. We have a big job. Let's get on fixing it."

Well, when he was a rookie coach in Anaheim, he hadn't yet won two Olympic gold medals and a Stanley Cup.

Once you've set that standard, once you've got that taste, once you've built a reputation as being the best coach in the NHL, you get used to that kind of world.

Babcock's greatest challenge as coach of the Maple Leafs over the next few seasons will be to somehow stomach the meaningless losses in February while the team builds this thing up piece by piece and all the while not lose his mind.

Take, for example, this exchange with my colleague Francois Gagnon of RDS on Thursday during Babcock's presser.

Gagnon: "You've been a winner ..."

Babcock interjecting: "That was past-tense, let's try that again."

Gagnon: "You are a winner."

Babcock: "Thank you."

You see, probably nobody believes me, but it matters more to Babcock to win than it is to collect $50 million over eight years. It's what drives the guy. He wants to win at everything he does.

Now, the ability to turn this train wreck of a franchise into a Stanley Cup champion over the next several seasons would certainly fill that insatiable need to win like nothing else could. That's the ultimate win of wins in hockey.

Of course, Randy Carlyle and Ron Wilson had visions of that, too, being the guy to end that 48-year Cup drought would make you a legend for life.

"We can spend all the time you want talking about the last, this-many-years, that-many-years," said Babcock. "None of that is on my radar at all. It starts now here for me. ... My job starts today as far as I'm concerned, as far as the on-ice product. We're going to work hard to make that better. We're going to work hard to restore the Maple Leafs to their rightful place in the league."

It will be interesting to see just how long this rebuild will take to run its course. Lamoriello, who turns 73 next month, isn't here for an eight-year rebuild, one assumes. So with every move he makes, like acquiring Michael Grabner on Thursday from the New York Islanders, it will be natural to wonder if it's consistent with the long-term plan to make this franchise a winner or will there be an urge to speed it up. Be careful with that urge, it's killed many a GM before in this town.

For the coach, meanwhile, it's making sure that he's living in the present and not worrying about what this team will be in five years.

"The biggest challenge today is whatever I'm doing," Babcock said. "If you live in the present and focus on what you're doing you have a chance to be successful.

"I've been fortunate to coach some teams, have some success," he later added. "In the end, when you get the ultimate prize, it's still about the process. So you focus on the process, be process orientated and try to get better and we're going to try to take a step each day and make each other better.

"I can't tell you what's going to happen. I just know the process is going to be built in and we're going to work at it. If it takes longer than we want, it's longer than we want. If it's quicker than we expected, it's quicker. We'll just keep grinding."