Last laugh for ex-Leafs

MIKE ZEISBERGER, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:44 AM ET

Hal Gill figures Paul Maurice got a raw deal in Toronto.

At least when it came to some of the criticism lobbed at the personable coach, who was relieved of his duties as bench boss of the Maple Leafs a year ago after two seasons on the job.

In a phone interview from Pittsburgh yesterday, the lanky blueliner specifically recalled accusations from outside the Toronto dressing room that Maurice's alleged system of man-to-man defence in the defensive zone was antiquated and easily exploitable.

"I heard all that stuff," Gill said. "And it's an unfair rap that (Maurice) did not deserve.

"People would always ask me about that. They would ask why we were playing man to man. I don't know where that stuff came from. He never stressed man to man ... Never."

Gill arrived on the scene with the Maple Leafs in the summer of 2006, signing a three-year deal as a free agent on July 1. Weeks earlier, Maurice had been named as the Leafs coach, elevated from the AHL's Toronto Marlies to take over from long-time bench boss Pat Quinn.

It was a marriage that, while amicable, did not last long.

MISSED PLAYOFFS

There was no playoff berth in 2006-07. And despite Maurice's controversial claim the following September that his Leafs would "make the playoffs and challenge for the Stanley Cup," the team missed the post-season in 2007-08, too.

Gill was gone by that time, shipped to Pittsburgh at the trade deadline for a second- and a fifth-round draft pick. Several months later, Maurice was gone as well.

Now, a year later, both Gill and Maurice are having the last laugh.

While the Leafs are busy hacking chunks of sod out of a fairway near you, Gill and Maurice are just a step away from a berth in the Stanley Cup final. This time, though, on different teams.

Tomorrow night, Gill's Penguins will face off against Maurice's Carolina Hurricanes in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference final. Whatever problems there were in the quest for success in Toronto, they seem like a lifetime ago.

"I don't really know what happened to us with the Leafs," Gill said. "We scored a lot of goals. We just didn't get it done defensively. I'm not sure what the difference is with him (in Carolina) but it's a fine line.

"He was a pretty straight-forward coach. He wanted things done up-pace. Even the practices were short and hard. I liked that.

"Paul made it feel like family. You were always accountable, and he would let you know if you weren't cutting it. That was the case one night after I'd had an awful game. He said: 'You can't have another one like that.' Yet with the media, he went to bat for me. He stuck up for me. As a player, you appreciate that."

Gill also appreciates the way the 'Canes have responded to Maurice, who replaced Peter Laviolette as coach midway through the season.

"I think (Carolina) typifies what type of coach he is," Gill said. "They like to have lots of speed through the neutral zone and they play aggressive. It's nice to see Paul do so well. I'm very happy for him. At the same time, I really want to beat him."

Either way, Maurice and Gill are better off than the Leafs. At least they are playing May hockey, not golf.

MIKE.ZEISBERGER@SUNMEDIA.CA


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