Maurice stands by his men

LANCE HORNBY -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 11:13 AM ET

Paul Maurice could come up with only "three or four" unnamed Maple Leafs he thought let the side down this season, although most fans gladly would point out more culprits for him.

But if the coach is headed to the unemployment line next autumn, as most suspect, he wasn't going to use his season-ending news conference to slime the players who helped put him there.

"You don't go through an NHL season (the Leafs' third in a row without playoffs), look at some decisions and not think you'd take another tack," Maurice said. "It was certainly the most eventful year I've had as coach, but I still have a high opinion of this team.

"We still have good, developing mid-range players such as Alex Steen and Matt Stajan. There are three or four players you would say we needed better performances from."

Maurice was asked to assess three of the media's picks, goalie Andrew Raycroft, defenceman Bryan McCabe and forward Jason Blake.

Raycroft was 2-14 overall, disastrous for a team that needed five more wins to qualify for the playoffs. But Maurice insisted Raycroft deserved the early season action based on a good camp and the need to get first-string goalie Vesa Toskala comfortable. Maurice also believed McCabe's confidence problems partly were rooted in fan abuse.

But it was former 40-goal winger Blake who twice dropped strong hints during the season that he wasn't being used properly. Maurice said that topic would remain private, but that playing with four different centres likely had a chaotic effect. He did point out that while Blake's goal total dipped to 15 from 40, he reached a career-high 37 assists.

Maurice also had a battle of wills with centre Kyle Wellwood over effort and conditioning.

MARLIES STOCK UP

The Maple Leafs yesterday sent defenceman Staffan Kronwall and forwards Jiri Tlusty and Kris Newbury to the Marlies. Defenceman Anton Stralman could follow, pending the Swedish national team's decision to use him at the world championships.


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