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Toronto Maple Leafs forwards Tyler Bozak, left, and Viktor Stalberg celebrate after Stalberg scored against Detroit Red Wings during the first period of their preseason game in Detroit. (REBECCA COOK)
Toronto Maple Leafs forwards Tyler Bozak, left, and Viktor Stalberg celebrate after Stalberg scored against Detroit Red Wings during the first period of their preseason game in Detroit. (REBECCA COOK)

David Shoalts

'Our goal is to make the playoffs,' Burke says Add to ...

One year ago, the Toronto Maple Leafs were all about managing expectations.

Interim general manager Cliff Fletcher, who was keeping the chair warm for Brian Burke, spent most of his time telling fans how lousy the Leafs were going to be. And so they were.

But now, as so often happens in Toronto, expectations seem to be threatening to spin out of control with each preseason win by the team reshaped by Burke since he arrived last November. What made the fans positively giddy, aside from the newfound toughness, was that most of those wins were driven by the youngsters in the lineup, the Nazem Kadris, Tyler Bozaks, Viktor Stalbergs and Jonas Gustavssons.

Now, with Burke's rebuilding program in place, management has raised the bar.

"Our goal is to make the playoffs," Burke said. "There's no blackboard stuff, no proclamations, but we believe this group is good enough to get there."

Given that the Leafs have not made the Stanley Cup tournament since the long-ago days of 2004, this is heady stuff for Leaf fans.

The fans need little encouragement to get ahead of themselves. The Buffalo Sabres, though, delivered a reality check last night with a 7-6 win in a defence-free game at the Air Canada Centre that left the Leafs with a 6-3 preseason record.

Actually, the reality set in several hours before last night's game when Kadri, the Leafs' first-round draft pick this year, was sent back to the London Knights, his junior team. With three goals and two assists in six preseason games, the slick centre was the talk of training camp.

But he is also 18 and not yet built for the rigours of an NHL season at six feet and 177 pounds. While it was a bit of a surprise that he was not awarded a regular-season game or two for his showing at training camp - or even the three-day trip to cottage country the Leafs are taking this week - Burke and head coach Ron Wilson made it clear from the start Kadri was going back to the Ontario Hockey League.

"No, we don't have any [roster]space to do that," Wilson said of keeping Kadri for a peek at the NHL.

Two of the other cuts yesterday were not surprising either. Forward Christian Hanson has the size and disposition to play in the NHL but needs to work on his speed and the adjustment to the wing from centre. And there was no room on defence for Jonas Frogren given the unit's vast improvement.

The Leafs did not officially announce any other roster changes (the deadline is Wednesday) but it became clear after the game where they are headed. Veteran centre Jason Allison, trying to make a comeback after two years on the sidelines, will be released.

Headed for the Leafs' Toronto Marlies farm team will be Bozak and goaltender Joey MacDonald. That leaves Viktor Stalberg, who played well again last night and finished with nine points in eight preseason games, as the lone survivor of the Leafs' trio of rookie forwards who graduated from college hockey, Bozak and Hanson being the others.

Stahlberg will spend the next three days getting to know his new teammates at a resort in Huntsville, Ont., before the Leafs open the season on Thursday against the Montreal Canadiens. The Habs are doing some team bonding of their own, taking up residence at Teen Ranch in nearby Caledon, Ont., ahead of the season-opener.

With the additions of François Beauchemin, Mike Komisarek and the development of Luke Schenn, there is no doubt the defence is light years ahead of last season's group. But as the Sabres showed with three goals in a stretch of 5 minutes 35 seconds in the second period last night and two in 1:12 in the third, questions remain.

The same can be said of the goaltending. With two promising appearances against the Detroit Red Wings following an abbreviated training camp because of a minor heart problem, Gustavsson also had the fans over the moon.

But he's played a grand total of three NHL preseason periods. How the Leafs will go this season will depend on veteran goaltender Vesa Toskala bouncing back from his groin problems. So far, results have been mixed, with some fans registering their opinion last night when he let in all those goals by the Sabres.

Wilson was quick to say after the game that Toskala will start against the Canadiens on Thursday, "so there's no goaltending controversy."

The real questions, though, are still about the forwards, particularly down the middle. Look for Burke to try to land a centre with some of his excess defence talent when the NHL GMs start looking for trades in late November.

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