This is Quinn's finest hour

MIKE ULMER -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:27 AM ET

Where would the Maple Leafs be if they weren't buoyed by free agents?

Or if they didn't have an unstoppable captain?

Or a lights out goalie?

Well, it turns out, right where they are right now.

This is Pat Quinn's finest hour behind the Leafs bench.

The Leafs aren't a great team. That said, they were winners of eight of their past 10 games going into tomorrow's tilt in Vancouver against the Canucks.

The Leafs don't have a forward in the league's top-35 scorers. By comparison, the Ottawa Senators have three in the top 14.

Age has begun to siphon away the talents of the club's most productive player and finest leader. Mats Sundin, at 34, has scored just nine goals.

Hall of Fame goalie Ed Belfour continues to make the tough save but delivers fewer of the average ones. If his 3.14 goals-against average holds, it would be his most bloated figure since he was a rookie with the Chicago Blackhawks in 1989. It also would mark the worst season for a Leafs regular since Felix Potvin lost it in 1996-97.

Free agent Eric Lindros has missed a dozen games and is weeks away from returning from a wrist injury. Jason Allison has averaged nearly a point a game but has only six goals. Tie Domi, a very influential player in his prime, is no longer a factor.

And yet, the Leafs are 24-15. Sure, five of the wins came in overtime. But the coach still picks the players when the game goes to four-on-four.

JUST EIGHT POINTS BACK

How Quinn has woven 24 wins from this shopworn group should be put to music.

At the halfway mark of the season, the Leafs are only eight points behind the Senators. They remain within hailing distance of first place in the Northeast and for the life of me, I don't see how.

Part of the answer is in continuity.

The Leafs' unexpected success -- they didn't even look like a playoff team in the pre-season -- is a function of stability. One of Quinn's great advantages is that every season, he takes over from a pretty smart guy.

In 2004-05, Quinn teamed Alexei Ponikarovsky and Nik Antropov with Joe Nieuwendyk. The classy Nieuwendyk schooled the young Europeans. Ponikarovsky has a career high 10 goals and Antropov seemed to have regained his long dormant game before hurting his knee.

FINDS HIS STRIDE

Quinn promoted Matt Stajan to the big club as a rookie. He kept Carlo Colaiacovo off the roster for a couple of years and then watched contentedly as Colaiacovo found his stride in the minors. Finally ready, Colaiacovo has seen some significant playing time.

Quinn didn't just put rookie Alexander Steen in the lineup, he rotated him through different line permutations to exploit his defensive gifts.

He gave Kyle Wellwood enough time to establish himself as an NHLer and moved Chad Kilger onto the top line to give Sundin another big body up front.

He banished lazy forward Mariusz Czerkawski to the press box and squeezed some offence out of him when he returned.

The Leafs should be looking up at a playoff spot and not within a long gallop of the division lead.

They have endured a wave of injuries.

Allison, Sundin, Lindros and Antropov have missed significant time. They have an ungainly, inflexible lineup of one-dimensional players such as Jeff O'Neill.

Quinn won't get much consideration for coach of the year. A handful of coaches, Mike Babcock in Detroit, Dave Tippett in Dallas, Peter Laviolette in Carolina have done commendable jobs.

That does nothing to dim the stellar work Quinn has delivered this season. In a year unlike any other, where both the roster and the rules were in constant upheaval, he has been a constant.


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