Leafs stopper approaches season with optimism . . . really

 

It took a year, but Vesa Toskala is starting to feel comfortable in his surroundings.

 
 
 
 
 

TORONTO — It took a year, but Vesa Toskala is starting to feel comfortable in his surroundings.

As he embarks on his second season in Toronto, the Maple Leafs goaltender has been reunited with his former head coach, his defence has been bolstered, and a bobblehead doll is being designed in his likeness.

Everything, so far, is perfect. Almost.

The Leafs, who are rebuilding, are not expected to challenge for a playoff spot. And Toskala’s bobblehead, which will be given away at a Toronto Marlies game, looks more like a Ken doll than the punk-coiffed Finn.

“This is like some kind of nerd,” said Toskala, staring at a mock-up of the doll. “The hair needs to be more spiky, more messy.”

Upon taking a closer look at the drawing, he noticed another egregious error.

“It says Versa,” Toskala said. “That needs to be changed.”

Among the other changes around Toskala: Ron Wilson, who coached him for four seasons with the San Jose Sharks, replaced Paul Maurice behind the bench.

Goaltender Curtis Joseph was brought in to be the backup. And veterans such as Darcy Tucker, Bryan McCabe — and likely even Mats Sundin — are gone.

“Honestly, I’m not that surprised,” said Toskala, who practised with the new-look Leafs Friday.

“I think we needed a change here, so I was kind of expecting this. Now, we’re going to have a younger team, and I guess we are in a little rebuilding situation. But still, I think our team looks better than last year.”

Last season, according to Toskala, was “awful.”

The Leafs finished 24th overall in the National Hockey League. Just three teams gave up more goals-per-game (3.21). And only the Los Angeles Kings had a poorer penalty-kill percentage (78.1).

If there was a bright spot, it was the performance of Toronto’s plucky netminder.

Sure, Toskala ranked outside the top 30 in goals-against average (2.74) and save percentage (.904). But only eight goaltenders faced more rubber — 1,824 shots per game — than the 31-year-old, who recorded 33 of Toronto’s 36 wins last season.

“For sure, I didn’t know what to expect last year,” said Toskala, who was booed by the home crowd in his first exhibition game.

“I didn’t know how the media or the fans are and how everything worked. So now I can just focus on playing hockey.”

Toskala, who went 8-4-1 in February and 7-4-0 in March, learned that the Toronto fans reward a winning effort. He also learned that management plans to build around the five-foot-10 netminder, whom the Leafs acquired from the Sharks last year.

“I feel very comfortable that he’s in Toronto and he’s someone that can be a key part of a winning team,” general manager Cliff Fletcher has said. “We feel we have our goaltender for the future and we’re very content right now.”

Toskala, despite having a nerdy-looking bobblehead and a team that many are expecting to finish at the bottom of the standings, is also content.

He believes that Wilson will improve the team’s penalty kill, that Jeff Finger and Jonas Frogren will improve the team’s play in its own end, and that Sundin’s expected absence from the lineup will result in a more team-oriented effort.

“It always don’t matter what name is on the back of the jersey,” Toskala said. “If everyone works as a group on this team, we can surprise lots of the teams this year. I kind of like what we’ve added on this team, especially defensively.”

When asked for his opinion on where the Leafs might finish the season, Toskala seemed optimistic.

“I don’t know if we are ready to take a step back from last year, because that was a really awful year,” he said. “But still, I think we’re in a situation where we don’t know what to expect. We’ll just have to wait and see how things go. But I have a really good feeling that we’re going to surprise.”

National Post

mtraikos@nationalpost.com
 
 
 
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