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Lots Of Work Ahead For Maple Leafs

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs
Recap | Box | Photos Video: Game In Six | Post | Devereaux's Hat-Trick | Wilson | More...

Fans shouted ‘Go Leafs Go’ tonight and the Leafs will; just where and how many, remains the tough part.

The Leafs beat the Ottawa Senators 5-2 on a hat-trick from Boyd Devereaux and two third-period markers by Niklas Hagman. Jason Spezza and Chris Kelly replied for the Senators. The Leafs will enter the draft lottery with the seventh pick.

The Maple Leafs end their season 34-35-13 and by most measurements the team trended down. The Leafs won two fewer games than last season and six fewer than the year before. Their consecutive seasons out of the playoffs sits at a franchise record four.

The Leafs were last in goals against for the first time in 27 years. Disappointments included team defence, as well as the play of Lee Stempniak and for most of the season,  goalie Vesa Toskala.

“We’re going to need consistent goaltending and we were the worst team in the league on the penalty kill,” appraised coach Ron Wilson.

But some things can dull the sting.

Start with a richly encouraging seasons from rookies Luke Schenn, Mikhail Grabovski, John Mitchell and Nikolai Kulemin. Factor in the acquisition of collegians Tyler Bozak and Christian Hanson. Prospect Jiri Tlusty has blossomed with the Marlies and should be ready to step into the lineup next season. Jason Blake scored a redemptive 25 goals in his second season as a Leaf.

The Leafs are reportedly in the running for the services of Boston University defenceman Matt Gilroy. As well, the club is said to be a possible destination for Swedish goaltender Jonas Gustavsson.

With ample cap room, there is no reason to believe the Leafs won’t be players in free agent sweepstakes for Calgary gunner Michael Cammalleri and kingpin Florida defenceman Jay Bouwmeester.

Clearly, the Leafs are creating a disproportionate amount of buzz when you consider their place in the standings.

Credit that to the management combo of Brian Burke and Wilson. Strong-willed, dynamic and unapologetic, the two have brazenly predicted tough times and then, just as brazenly, better ones.

There were encouraging stories as well. Ian White was spurred by early-season benchings to piece together his best season. Injuries couldn’t quite mar heartening campaigns from defencemen Mike Van Ryn and Jonas Frogren.

Who will go?  Well, Devereaux, the star Saturday, is a free agent at season’s end. As encouraging as his night was, the necessity of roster turnover and his age (Devereaux is 30 and spent most of the season with the Marlies) augers against him staying for a long time.

“They have a lot of hard decisions to make,” said Devereaux, as nice a man as you will find in any NHL precinct. “I’m going to have to wait and see what happens like everyone else in this dressing room.”

The club probably will not re-sign free agent goalie Curtis Joseph. Tonight's winning goalie, 34-year-old Martin Gerber acquitted himself well, but the club will probably want to go younger in goal as well. There may even be a suspicion that Toskala, coming off hip and groin surgery, would be better suited to more of a goalie rotation. Brad May is 37 and soon to be a free agent. Thirty-four year old Jamal Mayers did not enjoy a particularly impactful season.

As far as tradeables go, the ascension of Mitchell might make Matt Stajan a player who can be moved. If Gilroy comes, the team will have an even bigger logjam on the blue line and that could result in Pavel Kubina or Tomas Kaberle being traded.

Only the kids are the sure bets.

What matters most, at least for now, isn’t wins and losses. You say that when you lose. You also say it when you take a step back in anticipation of ten steps forward.

Wilson, who vowed to end what he called the culture of entitlement when he arrived, said he felt he had made progress. “We stuck to the plan. The bottom line is we changed the culture of entitlement.”

That said, the sophomore slump is a well-documented phenomenon. Wilson spent much of his post-game press conference talking about the shameful lack of conditioning in this year’s team. Much has been done. Much still needs doing.
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