“There are moments where we dominate for eight to 10 minute. You can hopefully see the future in those eight to 10 minutes.”
- Leafs Coach Ron Wilson
This is what Ron Wilson inherited when he took over the Maple Leafs this summer.
A roster so disconnected from winning, only three players, Matt Stajan, Nik Antropov and Alexei Ponikarovsky had appeared in a post-season game for the Maple Leafs. Antropov, second in goal-scoring, would be dealt at the trade deadline for no immediate return. So was 12-goal scorer Dominic Moore, by the by.
A number one goalie who would endure a dreadful season before giving in to surgery in early March after his only real good stretch of the campaign. For much of the season the backup, Curtis Joseph, would struggle mightily.
A club whose identity was emaciated by the departure of Mats Sundin after 13 starry seasons.
Jason Blake, the Leafs’ free agent headliner from the year before, coming off a terrible 15-goal year.
Wilson’s limited assets included dependable players in Nik Hagman and Mike Van Ryn (the two have missed 63 games to injury and counting) and two experienced defenceman in Tomas Kaberle and Pavel Kubina. Maybe he could count on some help from rookies Luke Schenn
, Nikolai Kulemin
, Anton Stralman and Mikhail Grabovski
This was a team destined for 28th or 29th in a 30-team league. Instead, they sit 22nd. Not great, until you consider…
When asked to find comparables between this year’s Leafs and teams he has coached in Anaheim, Washington and San Jose, Wilson chose the expansion Ducks, a club that garnered a surprising 71 points in the 1993-94.
This may be Ron Wilson’s finest hour since then, handling a team that never really threatened the playoffs after New Year’s, a team that is the runaway worst in goals against, a team that is second worst on the penalty kill.
Now that’s a disconnect.
Well, surely part of the good vibrations around the club right now can be attributed to shrewdly managed expectations. When John Ferguson and Paul Maurice, convinced they had nothing to lose, declared the Leafs Cup contenders last year, they raised the bar. It didn’t matter if most fans knew they were trying to bluff the pot with a pair of twos.
Wilson, Cliff Fletcher and his successor, Brian Burke have cautioned fans not to expect a playoff team this season. The statute of limitations, and heaven knows, the Leafs have those, may not expire next season either.
But what Wilson has accomplished with what he was handed is astonishing.
How many holes did the coach help fill? Who got better? Who responded to Wilson’s mix of positive reinforcement and ass-kicking?
He benched Blake in October and again in November to rid him of the remnants of last year’s habits. Blake leads the team with 25 goals and 57 points.
Wilson took the same tack with Stajan to reassert the need to compete nightly, Stajan is enjoying a career year. When the Leafs traded Antropov, Ponikarovsky was comfortable enough in his role to mentor Grabovski and Kulemin and grow as a player along the way.
Ponikarovsky is an interesting study. He is a strapping player whose gentle nature means he will never fully exploit his gifts. But he has an idea of what to do in his own end, he’s a good person and he can score. Wilson saw all that and ignored those elements of Ponikarovsky’s nature that could not be changed.
Wilson kept Ian White out of the club’s first 11 games and when he returned him, he shifted him to forward. The resilient White has emerged as the poster boy for the kind of aggressive optimism every team needs. Is it a coincidence that the player with the toughest mental makeup was hung up like a piñata, only to rebound magnificently?
Tuesday, in beating the Caps, one of the best teams in the league, the Leafs used Martin Gerber, Boyd Devereaux, Ben Ondrus, Phil Oreskovic, Stralman and Jeff Hamilton, all of whom saw time this season in the minor leagues. If that’s not coaching…
Stralman remains a project but count the successes.
Schenn has developed beautifully. Because of his strong skating, hard shot and intensive tutelage from Wilson, Mitchell looks like a third-string centre with 20-goal potential. That’s a long jump from a prospect.
Kulemin is on schedule and playing his best hockey. Same with Grabovski. The same could be said of defenceman Jonas Frogren, a spectacularly gritty competitor who suffered a knee injury eight games ago.
Then there is Phil Oreskovic, a hulking defenceman who scored his first goal against Washington. Oreskovic has played eight games and while he is minus-2, he has maximized his speed and cleverly obscured his slow skating. The more Wilson moved the dial toward boil with increased ice time and tougher situations, the more Oreskovic refused to wilt.
Ron Wilson is a realist. That trait often stood in contrast to the unbridled optimism of the other giant of USA Hockey, Bob Johnson.
But even Wilson is finding himself occasionally swept away by the portents of an early exit from the doldrums.
“All of a sudden you find yourself saying, you don’t want to get ahead of yourself, but maybe we have found something here,” Wilson said of Oreskovic. “Not because he scored a goal, but he’s played with poise, he’s moved the puck, his skating has improved dramatically from training camp to now.”
So the question becomes, has the corner been turned.
No. But thanks in large part to Ron Wilson’s work, when the corner is turned, a whole of teams are in for the kind of nasty surprise the Capitals encountered on Tuesday and the Canadiens got on Saturday.
The Leafs have won four of five games, in some ways, when it matters least. But progress is progress, no matter when it comes.
“These are baby steps,” concurred Wilson. “Maybe once in a while we get up and jog for a while. That’s fun for our guys.”