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Things Looking Up For Leafs

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs

RELATED: Ulmer: Leafs Second Half Answers Plenty Of Questions | Leafs Headed To Worlds
VIDEO: Wilson | Phaneuf | Schenn | Reimer | Brent
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Coaches never predict.

Nobody wants to hear someone say:  ‘I told you so’.

Miss the mark and the world will line up to remind you. As far as habits go, making predictions and spitting against the wind are in dead heat.

But there stood Leafs coach Ron Wilson on Monday, his words about to echo in all the newsrooms in the city, not just thinking the unthinkable but speaking it in the one room in town with all the microphones.

“We’re probably two or three pieces from being a true contender,” he said at the Leafs season-ending press conference. “I’m talking a contender not for the playoffs, I’m talking a contender for the Stanley Cup.”

Now Wilson did not guarantee anything.  Some of the wise guys in the seats noted those players might have to be Sidney Crosby, Alexander Ovechkin and Chris Pronger. And yes, there is, as usual, some truth behind a caustic joke.

But as you pick yourself up, you will do so with the knowledge that the landscape of hockey in Toronto has changed. Someone from the Leafs said the words that start with S and C.

That’s brave. The Leafs have not played a post-season game since 2004. They have proven themselves very good at charging for the finish line an instant after someone goes to put it away.

But the thing is, when last you saw them, the Toronto Maple Leafs were awfully good. “We played with every team in the league,” said captain Dion Phaneuf, “all the way, up and down the standings.”

From when James Reimer entered the lineup on New Year’s Day, the Leafs played a collected .500, 12-12 against the 16 top teams who would make the playoffs. That’s not bad.

If you take the big picture, the Leafs deficiencies are not hard to find. They were 22nd on the power play with a rate of 16 per cent and 28th on the penalty kill where opponents converted 22.6 per cent of their advantages. Tim Brent was lobbed back and forth to run the power play and a rotating cast of candidates was tried on the penalty kill. Things improved in the second half of the year but there remains ample work to be done.

But those pieces Wilson speaks of, whether they come from the inside (unlikely in the short term) or from the outside could paper over a lot of cracks.

“That might be an area we need to address, a number one centre if they’re available,” he said. “I am comfortable with our centres right now, but if we added something to that top line he could take some top minutes.”

Okay, stop the tape. There is only one free agent centre who meets that measure: Dallas pivot Brad Richards.  Just so we both know we both know.

Wilson noted how comfortable Tyler Bozak looked when shifted between Nazem Kadri and Matt Frattin in the season finale.

Bozak, he seemed to be saying, was an honest player not put on earth to be a number one NHL centre. It’s hard to see a lot of shame in that.

With Phaneuf back to hammering net-seeking missiles on the power play, the Leafs need to find him a set-up man. Again, for what it would be worth, Richards, who works the point on the power play, could fill that bill.

“We obviously need somebody who can move the puck on our power play,” Wilson said.  “Kaba (Tomas Kaberle) played a certain role, but Dion is not the quarterback for the power play. When someone is setting him up he is a lot more efficient.”

Wilson said the improvements evident in the season were impossible to ignore.

“When was the last time we had two thirty goal scorers?” he said of Phil Kessel and Nikolai Kulemin. “We should have had three but Grabo (Mikhail Grabovski) kind of hit the wall (at 29). I am expecting those guys to add a couple of goals. I think Phil can be a 45 to 50-goal scorer in the league. I am confident from what I have seen that Joffrey Lupul is a 25-30 goal-scorer as well.  We have to find a way to get a little bit more offence from the back end, but Dion was scoring on a 20-goal pace. That’s what we are looking for.”

The season righted itself, of course, when Reimer stepped into the blue paint for good and he vows there will be no letdown in the second year.

“It’s just in your head,” he said of the sophomore jinx. “We touched on it in the (coach’s) meetings: What can you do to prepare yourself best so it doesn’t happen? When I look back in junior, my second year was better than my first year. Starting off with the Marlies the second year wasn’t too much of a letdown. You can’t let anything seep in from people patting you on the back and saying you’re so good. You ‘re thankful but you can’t let yourself relax.”

“The biggest thing for our group was how much we grew as a team after the all-star break,” Phaneuf said. “You read and see on TV that it was just another late push, but it was more than a push. Being in the room, night in and night out, we were playing in big games that were playoff-like. For next year, it’s really going to help us. We’re going to learn from the good and the bad. We had a lot of both.”

Having completed his third year, Luke Schenn said this goodbye feels different.

“The first couple of years I think it was more hoping the team would be better. Now there is a belief that we are on the right track. It seems like there’s a plan in place. We are starting to get results and obviously  we are one of the younger teams in the league. Things should be looking up and we are excited.”
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