No cutting corners for Maple Leafs

Ross McKeon
Yahoo! Sports

At least the Toronto Maple Leafs are being up front this season. Instead of proclaiming they're a playoff team ready to compete for the Stanley Cup as fired coach Paul Maurice predicted last year, this season general manager Cliff Fletcher and new coach Ron Wilson have suggested the team might have to take two steps back to take one forward.

That may not appease the passionate fans that make up the self-proclaimed center of the hockey universe, but there is no other way to take shortcuts. The Leafs have to strip it back, go young, be patient and hope to improve.

Lost in all the hand-wringing of last year's last-place finish and third straight non-playoff showing for the first time in 80 years is the fact that according to the NHL way of calculating the standings, Toronto finished with a winning record. Few are counting on a winning season this year, and that would mean a franchise first: four straight years without reaching the playoffs.

The man with the plan is Wilson, 53, who has done a heck of a lot of coaching in the NHL and elsewhere since 1990. He even dressed for the Leafs for parts of three seasons early in his diverse playing career. Toronto is probably fortunate to attract such an accomplished bench boss considering the task. Then again, it is Toronto, and anyone who can build a winner here gets the key to the city and a lot of free meals along the way.

Wilson is what the Leafs need as long as they don't drive him crazy in the meantime. He's had plenty of experience working with youngsters, especially in Anaheim during his first head coaching job and most recently in San Jose. He has a great feel for where the game is today in addition to where it might go tomorrow.

The Leafs appear to be a team that will struggle to score many goals, so expect Wilson to implement a similar defensive system that he employed in San Jose. He knows his goalie Vesa Toskala well from their shared days in San Jose, and he knows that success starts from the net out.

To that end, assembling a responsible blue line that can limit its mistakes will be Wilson's biggest challenge. Toronto was poor in its own end last season – ranked 27 in average goals surrendered per game (3.12) – and that was with a decent Toskala in net. The Leafs were slow, not very physical and prone to making mistakes.

Fletcher did what he could, but as great of a hockey town as Toronto is, it's not easy to recruit there these days. The big defensive addition is Jeff Finger. He won't be confused with Ray Bourque, but he should give the Leafs 20 quality minutes a night. Tomas Kaberle and Pavel Kubina will probably form the first pair, and ex-Panther Mike Van Ryn figures to get time with Finger. But the real key will be the development of a couple intriguing young defensemen, including Anton Stralman and first-round pick Luke Schenn, if he sticks.

With all this talk about defense, what about up front and what about Mats Sundin? The popular team captain says he's still undecided about his plans to continue playing, but he's in Sweden and it doesn't appear to be in any rush to return. This would probably be the best time to cut the cord even though the Leafs will miss Sundin's production.

Last season: 36-35-11, 83 points, fifth place Northeast Division, 12th place Eastern Conference. Earning less than 90 points for the first time since 1997-98, Toronto finished out of a playoff spot for the third straight season. That's the longest postseason drought in Toronto since 1925-28.

Imports: D Jeff Finger (2007-08 team: Colorado Avalanche), LW Niklas Hagman (Dallas Stars), RW Jamal Mayers (St. Louis Blues), G Curtis Joseph (Calgary Flames), C Mikail Grabovski (Montreal Canadiens), LW Ryan Hollweg (New York Rangers), D Richard Petiot (Los Angeles Kings), D Mike Van Ryn (Florida Panthers).

Exports: C Mats Sundin (available free agent), D Bryan McCabe (Florida Panthers), RW Darcy Tucker (Colorado Avalanche), G Andrew Raycroft (Colorado Avalanche), C Kyle Wellwood (Vancouver Canucks), D Greg Pateryn (Montreal Canadiens).

Three keys to the season: It's not going to be easy in hockey-mad Toronto, but the fans, the critics and the media have to allow Wilson & Co. to do their jobs. It will not improve overnight, but the quick fix hasn't worked either. Wilson brought his two San Jose assistants – Tim Hunter and Rob Zettler, another ex-Leaf – along for the rebuilding. The Leafs will be a well-prepared team. The young players will get a chance to play, and they won't feel like they can't make a mistake. The Leafs need to stick with this plan regardless of how long it takes for positive results. It's all about drafting, developing and putting young players into a position to succeed. Toronto has a ways to go to build a deep organization so patience is really going to be a key.

Second, because it's going to be as much of a mental challenge as a physical one, role players such as Jamal Mayers, Dominic Moore and Ryan Hollweg have to bring energy and set the tone even if they're aren't the top-line performers or highest-paid stars. Third- and fourth-line players are expected to grind it. That will go a long way for Toronto if they can build an identity of being a tough team to play even if they don't win on most nights.

Third, now is the time for players such as Nik Antropov, Alex Steen, Alexei Ponikarovsky, Jiri Tlusty and Matt Stajan to become responsible two-way forwards. Wilson's system demands the forwards help out on defense, a five-man unit all over the ice. Too often last season the gaps were too big, the effort not there from forwards to take care of the Leafs' zone. Offense comes from defense. Toronto isn't quick enough to transition as well as a Detroit, a Pittsburgh, an Ottawa or a Buffalo. The Leafs will have to stay on the same page, and that means a mental adjustment made by the forwards.

On the hot seat: The label "interim" was removed from Fletcher's title, but the general manager doesn't feel any less pressure to move the franchise forward and out of its funk. The rumors of Fletcher just keeping the seat warm for another candidate won't stop. But, it is Toronto, and every GM will always be looking over his shoulder thanks to the constant scrutiny and public pressure associated with the high-profile position.

Poised to blossom: If the scouting report on 22-year-old Russian Nikolai Kulemin is accurate, he'll get an opportunity in Wilson's system. Kulemin, drafted 44th overall in 2006, is a strong skater with speed, but what Wilson is going to like is his intensity and the winger's knack for skating hard to get back into his own zone. Kulemin is a hard worker, good in the corners and not shy to venture to the front of the net. He scored 21 goals in 57 games last season for Magnitogorsk in the Russian league, so there's an offensive upside to his game as well.

Analysis and prediction: Let's be realistic, while there's nothing better than having the largest of Canadian media markets involved in the postseason, that's just not in the cards for the Maple Leafs. They are embarking on the right path if they're sincere about proceeding with patience. Our guess is the commitment to a solid plan will work well and help with recruiting in the offseason to the point where Toronto can compete for a playoff spot next season.

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