Ninety-eight days ago, the Toronto Maple Leafs opened their pre-season with a 6-4 win over the Buffalo Sabres.
That means on Wednesday, Leafs’ coach Ron Wilson will enjoy his hundredth straight day on the job since people starting keeping score.
In his first 100 days, Wilson has returned accountability to the daily lives of the players and overseen the early blossoming of Luke Schenn
. The Leafs are, in the eyes of a discerning public, a hard-working hockey club.
Wilson has fed copious ice time to rookies Mikhail Grabovski
and Nikolai Kulemin
and coaxed career seasons from veterans Ian White and Mike Van Ryn.
But they have also been chronically inconsistent and defensively porous. The Atlanta Thrashers, Tuesday’s opponent at the ACC, are the only team to surrender more goals than the 130 the Maple Leafs have given up.
Mapleleafs.com senior writer Mike Ulmer sat down with Wilson and talked about his first 100 days.Mike Ulmer:
You have used the word mediocre to describe your record (14-16-6). What are your thoughts on it?Ron Wilson:
It’s hard for me to comment on the record. I think we’ve done better than what a lot of people expected, but I’m not going to sugar-coat it: we are a mediocre team right now, scrambling every night. Every game for us is a test and a challenge. But we’re going through a rebuilding process and that’s the way it’s going to be for a while. My job as a coach is to make people like Mikhail Grabovski
and Luke Schenn
and Nikolai Kulemin
better hockey players. They’re going to be the core of our team three or four years from now when we expect to be one of the top teams in the East.Ulmer:
Who else has really grabbed your attention?Wilson: Nikolai Kulemin
has been inconsistent but you see the flashes and you are ready to live with the mistakes and inconsistencies. I’ve been very impressed with the play of Dominic Moore. Niklas Hagman has been an unbelievable find for us. I think John Mitchell is going to be a really good third or fourth line centre.Ulmer:
I’m still not sold on him because he’s not consistent. He will score a few goals and then have a few off games. This league is just not about scoring goals. You need other dimensions. That’s what has kept him out of the NHL. He has NHL hands and he has to be consistent. A lot of players are like that.Ulmer:
All in all…?
I’m pleased with the progress of our team. I said from the beginning we weren’t going to win the Stanley Cup this year and we were extremely doubtful to make the playoffs or even compete in the last 20 games for a playoff spot. We can’t say we want John Tavares and as we exhale say ‘and make the playoffs at the same time.’ The league is not going to change the rules to help the Toronto Maple Leafs. We’ve got to plug away, be a competitive team and have a work ethic where the other team says ‘God, that team works its butt off.” If we can build that foundation this year, it will make my job easier in the years to come. With new faces being added as we go and there are going to lots of changes by the end of the season and over the summer, when those guys come in they will know this is how you will have to comport yourself to be a Toronto Maple Leaf.
Does it have to be a four-year process? Teams like Chicago turned things around over a long time, but does it have to take that long?Wilson:
Chicago, Pittsburgh, Boston, those teams didn’t do it in two years without a solid core. We really don’t have a core. Cliff wasn’t off the mark when he said that we don’t have, outside of Nik Antropov, a top six forward. We’re trying to develop a couple of guys into that. We have to take our lumps but play a style that gets people out of their seats to see how hard we are working. I think we are doing that.Ulmer:
Some of your veteran players are having very good seasons. That’s helpful as you retool.Wilson:
It’s up to Brian Burke and the other people in the organization to take care of those things. I’m trying to make the best sounding music with the instruments I have on hand. You’ve got to tune those instruments. It may not be a symphony but it can sound pretty good.
We’re not going to compromise the kind of game we are playing. We are not going to dumb down our game in order to squeak out a point here or there and say we are going to learn how to play next year. We want to learn how to play correctly right now. That might not lead to victories but don’t we need them right now. We are going to need that kind of play in two or three years. We are building a foundation.Ulmer:
Tell me about the goaltending. Vesa Toskala has been up and down.Wilson:
He has been inconsistent, not unlike our team this year but there have been times when he has played unbelievably well. Cujo hasn’t been as consistent and we’re going to give him some starts now to give him an opportunity to show what he can do. I want to see if Cujo can help us in the second half of the season. If not, we’re going to have some tough decisions to make.Ulmer:
Tell me about the first 100 days.Wilson:
The media is a self-appointed beast. It’s not intimidating for me. The amazing thing is how great the fans have been. They haven’t been influenced at all by the talking heads who might not like me. I wish the talking heads would actually talk to the fans and see how the fans feel about our team and how we’ve approached things. Other than that, it’s been great. You’re competitive and you want to win every game, but realistically you know it’s not possible. I see a bright future for the Leafs, especially with Brian Burke and Dave Nonis on board. With everybody’s commitment to being patient, this is going to be a great franchise. Within 24 months or so, people are going to start to see results.