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Dion Phaneuf #3 of the Toronto Maple Leafs celebrates with teammate Clarke MacArthur #16 of the Toronto Maple Leafs after MacArthur's second period power play goal against the Pittsburgh Penguins on October 13, 2010 at Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Jamie Sabau/2010 Getty Images)
Dion Phaneuf #3 of the Toronto Maple Leafs celebrates with teammate Clarke MacArthur #16 of the Toronto Maple Leafs after MacArthur's second period power play goal against the Pittsburgh Penguins on October 13, 2010 at Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Jamie Sabau/2010 Getty Images)

DAVID SHOALTS

All the Leafs are working hard Add to ...

They showed them over and over again on TSN, as if they were something so rare and wondrous they had to be seen repeatedly lest they disappear into the ether, as fleeting as the microscopic bits of success the Toronto Maple Leafs have had over the last four years.

It was the sight of Leafs forwards being relentless in their pursuit of the puck in their 4-3 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins on Wednesday night. Over and over, winger Colby Armstrong was shown losing the puck in the Penguins' zone and then coming out of nowhere to strip it from a Pittsburgh defenceman who was about to cross his own blueline with it. Then there was forward Mike Brown coming all the way back to his own end to help his defencemen, taking an outlet pass, moving the puck up and then knocking a Penguin off it at the other end of the ice.

The clips were well chosen because the most noticeable thing about the Leafs, to those who had to suffer watching them through the 2009-10 NHL season, is the 180-degree turn in their work ethic. Everyone on the team, not just a handful, works hard.

What is especially interesting is that the work ethic, enthusiasm and subsequent improvement are coming from the lesser lights. These players - Armstrong, Brown, Mike Zigomanis, Clarke MacArthur, Tim Brent - were not part of the off-season conversation, which was mostly about how the Leafs could make their top-six forwards better.

Yet it is these players who can take a bow for the Leafs' 3-0 record, one they will test Friday night at Madison Square Garden against the New York Rangers. And no, this is no happy accident. Each of these men is here because they had something in common, which was not necessarily talent, but something Leafs president and general manager Brian Burke and his team of executives wanted.

"Work ethic and character," said Leafs vice-president Dave Nonis, who is working on his third NHL team with Burke. "The players we brought in are, by and large, known for that. They are not the same thing, but they are closely related. If you have character, work ethic goes along with it."

Thanks to the salary cap and sins of the previous administration, Burke did not have his pick of a large crop of talent when it came to rebuilding the Leafs. No GM does, for that matter, as the NHL economy means at least half the players on any team's roster have relatively modest athletic talent.

These players may appear to be a dime a dozen, but make a mistake with them and they can be as unforgiving as handing millions of dollars to a floater with good hands. So the Leaf bosses figure all things being equal, the decision goes to the player with the best work habits, which is where homework comes in.

Nonis and fellow vice-president David Poulin studied MacArthur, who has four goals in three games, enough to know he was the type they wanted and the same went for Armstrong. Brown toiled for Burke and Nonis with the Anaheim Ducks, so they knew what they were getting there. Zigomanis played briefly for the Leafs' farm team last season and showed enough to get a chance this season.

Just about all of these players say their taste for work was not acquired, it is part of their DNA. "I didn't have to be taught that," said Brown, and Armstrong readily agrees.

"Yeah, I never really was a toe-drag kind of guy my whole life," said Armstrong, who grew up in Saskatoon, where those kind of guys are rare. "I always meat-and-potatoed it all over the place.

"I don't think I'd be in the NHL if I didn't do that. It's something I do game in and game out. With our team, it's something we all have to do in order to win. We need those second and third efforts and we're getting them from a lot of guys."

Follow on Twitter: @dshoalts

 

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