Toronto Maple Leafs\' goaltender Vesa Toskala, from Finland, is seen during a break in the action against the Ottawa Senators during NHL hockey play in Toronto, Thursday April 3, 2008. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
TORONTO - Vesa Toskala noticed the first change almost immediately after returning to Toronto from his summer vacation.
Suddenly, the No. 1 goalie for the Maple Leafs started getting recognized all over the city, something that didn't happen much during his first season with the team.
The next difference came as the Leafs opened training camp last week and Toskala felt completely comfortable when it was time to report for duty.
The third and most important change is currently happening inside the Maple Leafs dressing room, where Toskala thinks the overall mood is already as good as anything he's experienced during his time at the Air Canada Centre.
"It's not like big names or big superstars are here now," he said Tuesday after practice. "We're pretty much everybody on the same level and it seems to be good.
"Everyone is talking to everybody and we're just getting used to (each other)."
What a difference a year makes.
Chalk it up to lowered expectations, a revamped roster or simply the positive energy that many teams feel before wins and losses start counting, but there is an unmistakably light mood around this Leafs squad at the moment.
It's a change Toskala welcomes heading into his second season in Toronto.
"I think it's going to be a much more relaxed atmosphere here now," he said. "Everybody might feel more relaxed to speak up and say something if they have something on their mind.
"I think that's great. That's how you build good team spirit."
Ultimately, it will be Toskala's performance that probably dictates if this team is any good.
He was held out of Monday's pre-season opener in favour of backup Curtis Joseph and AHL starter Justin Pogge and won't travel to Pittsburgh on Wednesday as Pogge gets the start. There is no reason to rush Toskala into action with another seven exhibition games remaining beyond that.
When things get going for real on Oct. 9 in Detroit, he is definitely the guy the Leafs will be counting on. Toskala already has plenty of fans among his teammates.
"In Finland there's a tradition in goalies - there's so many good goalies and he's just proof of that," said forward Niklas Hagman, who signed with the Leafs during the summer at Toskala's urging.
"I don't know what they put in the water in Finland that so many good goalies come out."
The 31-year-old Toskala was one of the few bright spots last season on a Leafs team that had more than its share of defensive struggles. Toskala's numbers were modest as a result - a 2.74 goals-against average and .904 save percentage - but many of his 33 wins came in impressive fashion.
If new Leafs coach Ron Wilson is successful at making the Leafs a better defensive team, Toskala could develop into a star this season. Of course, he'll have to hold up his end of the bargain too.
"Goalies always have to play well if you want to win," said Toskala. "It's no different here. I don't try to think that way.
"I'm just trying to give the team the chance to win every night and not to try and do too much. If you try to do too much, you're screwed pretty much."
There is an obvious similarity between this version of the Leafs and the teams that Finland often sends to international tournaments. Both lack star players and rely on a tight-checking defensive system and solid goaltending to produce results.
"Finns are always good with the system," said Toskala. "If we (the Leafs) can learn the system and stick to it, I think we're going to be a better team than lots of people are expecting."
No one should be too surprised if he looks better this year.
Toskala was a fourth-round draft pick by San Jose in 1995 but is just now entering his first season as the unquestioned No. 1 of an NHL team. He actually watched Toronto's home opener from the bench a year ago as Andrew Raycroft got the start.
Wilson spent five seasons coaching the Sharks and often had trouble finding time to play him with Evgeni Nabokov and Miikka Kiprusoff also in the team's system.
"Vesa's been this good for a long time," said Wilson. "Now he gets to play because he doesn't have someone (to battle with). He doesn't have to necessarily share because he's clearly the No. 1 goalie.
"Since I've been in San Jose, he was a quality goaltender."
He arrived in Toronto by way of a trade before last season and has settled into life here with wife Marjo. The two like to roam the city and try new restaurants and are only now starting to get stopped regularly by fans.
Not that he minds a bit.
"I haven't had any bad experiences," said Toskala. "Super nice fans. Just wish us the best luck and nothing else.
"Me and my wife both love this city. There's so much to do here ... it's clean and it's safe. I love it here."
After spending the off-season at home in Finland, Toskala returned to Canada a full month before training camp to start skating with his teammates.
He was getting anxious.
"Summer was so long," said Toskala.