Wilson hopes to turn Leafs into club of fitness

STEVE BUFFERY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 4:35 AM ET

With only six games remaining on the schedule, and the playoffs not a reality, the Maple Leafs have started looking toward next season.

In that light, the team steered away from an on-ice practice yesterday. Instead, fitness testing and dryland training was the order of the day at the Air Canada Centre.

OFF-SEASON PLANS

The plan, coach Ron Wilson said, is to have a good idea of how each player developed fitness-wise this season and to prepare programs for them for the off-season -- with a view at everyone being in better overall shape heading into camp next fall.

"I'm a little bit more in charge now and I know what we're looking at as we plan going ahead," Wilson said.

The Leafs sit in 12th spot in the Eastern Conference. If the Montreal Canadiens avoid a regulation-time loss tonight, or the Florida Panthers win, the Leafs will be eliminated from post-season action for the fourth season in a row.

Typically, Wilson did not mince words when asked if he expects improvement in each player's fitness level before camp next season.

"They have a responsibility (to do that) or they won't be here next year," he said. "It's as simple as that."

Each player will be given a program for the off-season, identifying specific weaknesses, and the organization will pull a Big Brother act ... they'll be watching.

"We're trying to set up ways where they can go online and follow a fitness regimen and make sure they're checking things off that we can monitor in the summertime," Wilson said.

As for how the Leafs do next season, Wilson suggested he is not about to put on a pair of rose-coloured glasses and predict a playoff berth or anything of that nature. In fact, he reiterated yesterday that next season might be even more of a struggle than the current campaign as general manager Brian Burke rebuilds the franchise.

"We're going to have even more young guys next year. I know the way Brian operates," Wilson said. "There are going to be a lot of changes, I'm fully anticipating that. (But) I'm confident that going forward (in future seasons), we'll continue to improve. I'm very confident in that."

Wilson said he knew going into this season that qualifying for the playoffs would be "very difficult, if not close to impossible." Given that, his primary goal was for each player, and specifically to so-called younger players, to improve their overall game. In that light, he believes, it has been mission accomplished.

"My main assignment was to make everybody better, and I think in a lot of cases we've succeeded (with Mikhail) Grabovski, (Nikolai) Kulemin, Luke Schenn and John Mitchell, to name a few," he said. "Even the guys who might not have been here all year -- Jiri Tlusty, for example -- got some experience with us and has really improved in his play. He's become a dominate force in the AHL, which we needed him to do in order to make the step and have a permanent place here."

Tlusty struggled in 14 games with the Leafs, but has thrived with the Marlies, recording 63 points (24 goals and 39 assists) in 61 games.

STEVE.BUFFERY@SUNMEDIA.CA


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