There was a markedly different vibe at the Toronto Maple Leafs’ practice facility Thursday during the latest in a series of informal workouts ahead of the truncated regular season.
Players were clearly still coming to terms with the stunning front-office moves from a day earlier when Brian Burke was relieved of his general manager and team president duties and Dave Nonis was promoted to GM.
“I was definitely shocked,” Maple Leafs defenceman Dion Phaneuf said. “That’s the biggest word I could use to describe it.”
Burke spent over four years at the helm of the NHL club but was unable to guide the Maple Leafs to a playoff spot. Nonis will be in charge of a team that is looking to make its first post-season appearance since 2004.
“It’s a tough part of pro sport,” Phaneuf said. “I have a lot of respect for (Burke) but now we move forward. Like I said, I’ve got a good relationship with (Nonis) and now as a group, we’re ready to work for him and go in the direction that he wants us to.”
Nonis will have his work cut out for him. The Maple Leafs are a young squad coming off a disappointing 13th-place finish in the Eastern Conference.
Phaneuf will be an anchor on a blue-line that has been inconsistent in the past. Forwards Joffrey Lupul, Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk provide a decent core up front but several question marks remain.
Will goalie James Reimer bounce back from injury and shut out the persistent Roberto Luongo-to-Toronto rumours? Will youngster Nazem Kadri make an impact with the big club? And how will the players perform for a full season under head coach Randy Carlyle?
There won’t be much time to get ready.
NHL players are expected to ratify the new collective bargaining agreement this week and training camps around the league will likely begin Sunday. The league is looking at a 48-game schedule to begin Jan. 19.
The minimal preparation time is challenging enough. Adding a massive change like a GM switch into the mix makes things even tougher.
“We have to put this behind us,” Phaneuf said. “Everyone has a lot of respect for (Burke) and what he did for every guy here.
“But with saying that, we’ve got to move forward and focus on the start of the year, having a good training camp and coming together as a group because it’s going to be a short time together before we start playing games.”
Nonis has some foundation in place with the team after spending the last four years as Burke’s right-hand man. But expectations for the club will be just as high in the hockey-mad Ontario capital.
“He’s been around a lot here too and I’m very familiar with him,” Phaneuf said. “He’s a straight shooter. He knows the game well and I look forward to working for him.”
A few of the Toronto Marlies were on hand for Thursday’s hour-plus session. About two dozen players took part and the pace of the scrimmage was noticeably higher than previous days.
Morgan Rielly, the team’s fifth overall selection in the 2012 draft, also participated. He played for Canada at the recent world junior hockey championships in Russia.
“It was great to get a skate with all of them together because that’s the group we’re going to start camp with,” Phaneuf said. “The more you get to know some of those guys, the better. You build some chemistry from the early stages right now.
“They all looked good.”
Burke selected Kadri with the seventh overall selection of the 2009 draft. The youngster was also surprised to hear about the changes.
“I’ve got a lot of respect for (Burke) and the organization,” Kadri said. “He’s the one who brought me to an NHL camp and gave me the opportunity to actually show what I can do at this level.
“We all understand it’s part of the business but we’ve got to move on.”
Phaneuf shared similar sentiments.
“It was definitely a difficult day yesterday,” he said. “A lot of mixed emotions. For our group, now we move forward and we focus on the start of training camp.”Report Typo/Error