The Wilson way

TERRY KOSHAN, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:41 AM ET

Ron Wilson couldn't help himself.

A television reporter was asking the Maple Leafs coach yesterday about the play of some of his young players, and Wilson, sensing the direction the question was about to take, cut him off.

"It's not our young guys, it's our veteran guys not ready to play at home," Wilson, taking a bite out of the query, said after practice at Lakeshore Lions Arena. "We should not be relying on the young guys to show veterans how to play."

The Toronto media has not dealt with a Leafs coach as acerbic since Pat Quinn (though Quinn mellowed after a health scare in 2002), and the players haven't either. But as much as Wilson has no problem challenging reporters, it's the work that he does with the players that counts most, and there's plenty of work left.

But after 13 games -- and with a couple of big ones looming, tonight in Boston against the Bruins and Saturday evening at the Air Canada Centre versus the Montreal Canadiens in the Hall of Fame game -- the signs of Wilson's influence are obvious. Where the Leafs of the past few seasons would have wilted after falling behind, this club isn't allowed to have that tendency. Accountability and discipline are all the rage, and it goes far beyond sending regulars to the press box to watch games.

No one figured the Leafs would be in a playoff spot in the first week of November, but eighth place in the Eastern Conference belongs to them. The chances remain it won't when the regular season ends next April, but Wilson's stamp slowly is making an indelible imprint.

"It's a totally different vibe with this team than last year," said Dominic Moore, who was picked up on waivers last January. "It's fresh. We're not where we need to be yet, but you are seeing the things that are going to be important as we go forward."

Wilson is finding that it has been a bit of a greater task so far to have the Leafs who returned from last season buy into his philosophy. The old saying that bad habits are tough to break has rung true with some of the Leafs vets. Familiar faces such as Alex Steen, Alexei Ponikarovsky and Pavel Kubina made mistakes that led to Carolina goals on Wednesday night.

"If you're used to doing something for a long time, it's hard to stop," Kubina said. "The older guys have been working on it. Sometimes we focus too much on the puck and don't play man-to-man in our zone. The work ethic is there. We have to be better from the start of games."

The fact that few expected much from the Leafs in 2008-09 plays in Wilson's favour, as anything the team accomplishes is a bonus. When the general manager says a month before the season starts that there's just one top-six forward in the bunch, and just two Leafs are singled out on the all-star ballot, the value of hard work becomes even clearer. Surprisingly, if the Leafs had been a bit smarter along the way through the first baker's dozen, they probably would be looking down at much of the Eastern Conference.

COULD BE BETTER

"We have a decent record (5-4-4), but we've let slip six or seven points," Wilson said. "You add those to what we have now (14) and we could technically be right at the top of the standings. If we can play better defensively and have that focus early in games, it will make us a better team."


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