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These Leafs are different...But are they any better? Add to ...

In the NHL, training camp is always a new beginning - for all involved.

That's the case for the Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks, who have to prove a radically revamped roster can still get the job done in what remains a tough Western Conference. And it's even more so for a team such as the Toronto Maple Leafs, league bottom feeders a year ago.

Camps opened across North America on Friday, and in Toronto, optimism was the theme among the Leafs, many of whom played only a partial role in last season's debacle.

Only nine of the 23 players on Toronto's opening night roster a year ago are likely to be there a year later, and all want to make their 29th-place finish a very distant memory.

"Let's drop that puck," defenceman Mike Komisarek said. "Let's get going."

Training camp also presents a bit of a math problem for coach Ron Wilson, who has an incredible (and very likely league-leading) number of bodies to organize with 64 players on hand.

The cuts will start early and come fast and furious, as Wilson said Friday he expects to have that group whittled down to five forward lines, eight defencemen and three goaltenders by next Sunday. As many as a dozen players won't even skate in an exhibition game, ending their unlikely run at a roster spot after a few days.

Working with only 26 players for the final week of preseason will, in theory, allow the Leafs coaching staff to use the final four exhibition games for the group of players likely to play in the NHL this season.

Wilson also revealed he had changed his training camp strategy from a year ago, saying he planned to form his lines early on. For one, the trio of Phil Kessel, Tyler Bozak and Nikolai Kulemin has already been pegged as one scoring line, and veterans Tomas Kaberle and Komisarek as a top-four defence pairing.

"It's going to be my job to try and create chemistry as quickly as possible," Wilson said, admitting that was an issue last fall.

The coach also identified and praised a few of his newcomers as potential difference makers, including established players such as Kris Versteeg and Colby Armstrong who were added via trade and free agency.

As far as camp battles, Wilson said he would be keeping a close eye on German free agent signing Marcel Mueller and prospect Jerry D'Amigo as players that have an outside shot at making the team.

In all, there are only six or seven jobs on the line, all relatively far down the lineup and many of which could be filled by pluggers such as John Mitchell, Mike Brown and Jeff Finger if the youngsters don't come though.

And no matter who makes the team, it will be a group with more than a few unanswered questions.

One of the key ones, initially, will be where exactly the goals will come from given 103 of the Leafs' 210 tallies last season were scored by players no longer with the organization.

It's a question Wilson seemed ready for.

"No, I'm not really worried," he said. "If we can only score two, we have to be better defensively and give up one."

As for the early prognostications, they have almost universally categorized the Leafs as "better" than they were a year ago - far from a bold prediction given where they're coming from. Toronto finished in the bottom six in the NHL in almost every major statistical category last season, placing dead last on the power play, penalty kill and in team save percentage.

There were also malcontents in the room, players who didn't enjoy life under Wilson, making it a year to forget on several fronts.

If any team needed a new beginning, in other words, this was it. Just how much better the young, enthusiastic bunch that's taken their place is remains to be seen.

"We feel pretty confident," Wilson said. "We've pretty much now in the last year revamped our roster. We've still got a long ways to go to be considered a bona fide Stanley Cup contender, but we truly believe that we have what it takes here to contend for a playoff position.

"We've seen after last year, you could get into the playoffs on the last night on a shootout and end up in the Stanley Cup final."

And, at this point, it doesn't get more optimistic than that.

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