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Time To Look Ahead For Leafs

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs
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You have a choice.

You can see what is there or you can look where things seem to be going.

Never has the chasm between the two options seemed larger.

The 2009-2010 season has been one of the worst ever for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Remember Harold Ballard?  Just about that bad.

The Leafs won 30 games which in itself isn’t so bad when you consider that twice during the Ballard era they won 20. But that comparison is skewed. They won nine games (after losing the first six) in overtime or the shootout.

Let’s just get this all over at once.

There is no real way of checking, but the fact that the Leafs were dead last in the penalty kill and the power play suggests we are breaking new ground.

The Maple Leaf total of 2.56 goals for a game is 25th in the league. The goals against figure, 3.21, is 29th.

The Leafs finished 14 points behind eighth-place Montreal. The top three draft choice they would ordinarily garner was swapped in the Phil Kessel deal. The Bruins will also receive this year’s second rounder and next year’s first rounder. Kessel rebounded from a shoulder injury and scored 30 goals in 790 games but that put him 21st in the league.

The good news?

Well, unlike Ballard Larry Tanenbaum didn’t try to convince his coach to wear a bag over his head.

The Leafs landed in Dion Phaneuf the kind of stud defenceman they have long coveted. Phaneuf is uncorrupted by the five years of playoff-free hockey the franchise has endured and seems destined to succeed Mats Sundin as the Leafs captain.

“He plays the game in a big sort of way and he plays the game with kind of a strut. That’s something we sorely lacked,” said coach Ron Wilson.

From the January day they acquired Phaneuf and goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere, the Leafs played .500 hockey. It was addition by subtraction, Giguere spun shutouts in his first two starts and incumbent Vesa Toskala took his bloated 7-12 record, .891 save percentage and 3.26 goals against average with him to Anaheim.

After off-season surgery to repair groin and hip injuries, Toskala was torched by the Washington Capitals in his first road start.  Wilson said Monday that he had doubts early about Toskala’s ability to win.

“It seemed like more of the same,” Wilson said. “I did lose a little bit of confidence in the beginning.”

As bad as Toskala was, his supporting cast was hardly better. Free agents Mike Komisarek and Francois Beauchemin struggled to find their way and Luke Schenn’s game went south as his ice time was siphoned away to the newcomers.

Newcomer Jonas Gustavsson needed two heart ablation surgeries and was sidelined with a groin injury. Poor play meant Nikolai Kulemin would start the season with the Marlies.

The Leafs lost their first eight games, beat Anaheim on the road and then lost four straight games in overtime or the shootout. The season was essentially over by early November.

The club was in a freefall.  Veterans such as Jason Blake and Lee Stempniak looked like they were skating through mud. Komisarek hurt his shoulder about the time he hit his stride and his year ended with shoulder surgery.

The Leafs righted themselves in December but capsized in January, losing 12 of 15 games.

Right about here, everything changed.

Tyler Bozak and Viktor Stalberg arrived from the Marlies to dramatically boost the team speed.

Bozak quickly established himself as a worthy set-up man for Kessel.

Carl Gunnarsson showed  himself as an NHL defenceman. Beauchemin got his breath and took a turn against the opposition’s top line.

The  trades changed everything. Wilson hiked ice time on Phaneuf who played a careful, deliberate game.

The Leafs got a coach and a goalie in Giguere, a perfect foil for Gustavsson and an advocate of the kind of Spartan regime demanded by goalie coach Francois Allaire.

“Of course I liked Vesa, but this was a great to get the chance to work with a goalie who has been winning the kinds of things I want to win,” Gustavsson said. “Especially with the style I want to play.”

The 32-year-old Giguere improved as he went and said that late in the Leafs season, he felt like the goalie he had been before his freefall to the backup’s job  in Anaheim.

“Last week, the way I felt on the ice was the way I felt when I was 25,” Giguere said. “It was the way I felt when I went to the final in 2003, the way I felt when we won the Cup in 2007. I had lots of energy, I was very upbeat. It was fun again.”

Kessel admitted that missing camp and the first month of the season because of shoulder surgery meant he never got his conditioning.

“In terms of fitness, I wasn’t where I wanted to be,” he said.

The coaching staff noticed.

“He’s got to start working out and get in the best shape of his life so that he doesn’t suffer some of these injuries.” Wilson said.

A peerless skater with a staggering shot and release, Kessel still indulges in a bad habit of shooting from far away stations instead of finding a teammate and jumping into a spot. Wilson agreed Kessel needs to have full confidence in Bozak, a player who should serve as a runningmate for years, to return the puck.

“Goalscorers don’t usually have the puck a lot,” Wilson said. “Other people have the puck and they find the scoring positions. I think that’s an area that Phil will get better at.”

Wilson expects three or four new faces in camp but that will hinge on off-season trades or free agency. With the first two draft choices gone and with a hair-thin free agent pool, GM Brian Burke will be swapping oranges for oranges.

As restricted free agents, Kulemin and Gustavsson will be signed.

There is, for Bozak, Stalberg and Gunnarsson, the shadow of the sophomore slump but Schenn hit his at 20, not 23 (Gunnarsson) or 24 (Stalberg, Bozak).

Wilson expects to have the speedy Nazem Kadri at centre after a blistering year with the London Knights. The goaltending looks settled. The Leafs have a top five in Phaneuf, Beauchemin, Komisarek, Gunnarsson and Luke Schenn. That would seem to mean Kaberle, the number one Leaf in seniority, could be dealt for a big forward on draft day when his no trade clause comes off. Schenn would be a spectacularly attractive asset for rival GMs because of his age, $850,000 2010-2011 salary and restricted free agent status the following season.

Wilson insists the overhaul is mostly done, no matter what the standings say.

“I have a completely different feeling I think this year than last because of changes that we have made. The direction that we are going is a lot more positive.”
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