Wilson suggests Mats was part of the problem

STEVE BUFFERY, TORONTO SUN

, Last Updated: 10:09 AM ET

When Ron Wilson was a mere Canadian, growing up in Fort Erie, he used to head down to the local thoroughbred track to watch the ponies.

When the day's program was over, he and his brother would scan the grounds for discarded tickets, hoping to find a few winners.

And when they did, their dad would share the profits.

Wilson relayed that heartwarming story at Woodbine Racetrack yesterday, where he was the honorary drawmaster for this Sunday's Woodbine Mile.

But his mood changed from happy reminiscence to barely contained agitation when the name Mats Sundin popped up.

"I'm preparing for Mats not to be here and I'm going to prepare our team for Mats not to be here," said Wilson, adding that he doesn't expect to talk to Sundin this weekend, even though the big Swede is in town, nor will he attempt to influence Sundin one way or the other.

Clearly, Wilson would rather jockey Sunday's Woodbine Mile favourite -- Kip Deville -- without a whip, wearing a Senators jersey -- than discus whether or not he thinks Sundin will return to play for the Leafs this season.

But, Toronto being Toronto, Wilson repeatedly was asked about Sundin yesterday, all during the same media scrum.

And while he was gracious enough to give some thoughtful answers -- through clinched teeth -- his message was definitely mixed.

RESPECTFUL

On one hand, Wilson said he respects Sundin for not rushing back if he is unsure whether or not he wants to play -- adding that he would welcome back the longtime Leafs captain with open arms.

On the other hand, Wilson suggested that one of the problems with the sad-sack Leafs last year was a distinct lack of leadership.

And you don't have to be Howie Meeker to connect the dots there, that leadership is supposed to be one of the major responsibilities of the team captain.

Wilson pointed out that the Leafs last season (15-23 in one-goal games) blew an overt number of leads late in games and that third-period meltdowns often are a result of a leadership void. The Leafs were outscored by 43 goals in the third period.

Further, Wilson also suggested that any team that fails to make the playoffs for three seasons in a row, also had leadership issues. Of course, Sundin happened to be the Leafs captain during those three seasons.

Wilson didn't come right out and say that Sundin is not a great leader, but the inference was there, as was the suggestion that there will be a new captain this season, possibly even a "captain by committee'."

"If the leadership was a burden for some of the people that aren't here anymore, then we'll try to spread that out and shoulder the responsibility with a lot of our younger people," Wilson said. "Inevitably, people step up and assume the leadership on a team when they see the opportunity is there. We've got to go in a different direction. We've got to get younger and we have to pass the torch to other people in that room," he added.

Who the new captain, or captains, will be, Wilson is unsure, adding that the leaders of the 2008-09 Leafs won't emerge until the first couple of months of the regular season are in the books.

"I have to get to know these guys when it matters most," he said. "You've got to see when the real bullets fly who the leaders are on your team."

Wilson said the other priority heading into training camp is establishing a tight defensive scheme for the Leafs, the fourth-worse defensive team in the NHL last season.

"Our league is not about scoring goals. It's about stopping the other teams from scoring," Wilson said.

"If you pay attention to the teams that actually win, usually the teams that are in the final are from the top five defensive teams in the league, and the Leafs have been consistently in the bottom five.

"If we're only good enough to average two or three goals ... then we have to stop the other team and hold them to two goals," Wilson said.

And that's with Sundin's "leadership," or without it.


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