TORONTO -- The best students are those given the most latitude and Ron Wilson has opened up a 200-by-85 foot classroom for the benefit of the young Maple Leafs.
If you’re going to miss the playoffs, try and make something good of it and that has meant getting involved, making mistakes and getting hands dirty.
To that end, the members of the coach’s top scoring line are all in their early 20s. He’s handed almost all penalty-killing duties to other kids and there is a rookie in the cage with a five-game winning streak.
“I think we’re playing the right way,” Wilson says. “We’re not holding on (playing clutch and grab hockey), we’re not trapping, trying to put people to sleep. We’re on the attack. And the most important thing is that we’re gaining valuable experience.”
So far, it hasn’t made much of a dent in the standings, though seven wins in the past nine games has brought them to within four points of four teams heading into Tuesday’s home date against the Florida Panthers.
“These guys are playing for their jobs and it’s fun to see how hard they compete,” Wilson said. “Dion (Phaneuf) has done a great job in the room getting us energized. We have a lot better starts and a lot of that has to do with Dion being vocal and it has led to some of our young kids joining in.
“It’s a young, aggressive group in there and they’re fired-up before they go on the ice.
“In the last 10 minutes of the game, I’m not worried: ‘How are we going to lose this one?’ Or: ‘When’s the other shoe is going to drop?’ We’re third or fourth in shots (taken) in the league and second to Chicago in shot differential. We have guys who try to do consistently what you ask them. In the last year and a half, we didn’t have that, unless we had a three-goal lead.”
Perhaps no statistic underlines the change in character with the Leafs more than penalty-killing. They have sat at the bottom of the NHL heap in this vital department for two seasons and bled dry in many of their five futile playoff chases since the lockout. When the referee’s arm went up, it was as bad as giving up at least a power-play goal against per game on average, to the halfway mark of 2009-10.
But the Leafs might now escape the cellar, if they keep on killing them off at the 83.3% rate since late January. They almost went 6-for-6 on Saturday against Montreal, merely the NHL’s best road power-play at 30% and even Brian Gionta’s late goal leaves Toronto’s streak a respectable 55-for-66.
“It seemed before like, every time on the penalty kill, something bad happened,” centre Rickard Wallin said. “But you just need that confidence, on penalty-killing and power-play, and we’ve really had it working since Freddy Sjostrom, Dion and those young guys came in. We changed some things in the way we come back up ice and in the zone.We try to pressure a little bit differently.”
Leafs fans can thank Wilson’s stint with Team USA for the new wrinkles, which he experimented with in Vancouver and applied here.
“I’ve seen it work with good penalty-killers and we kind of have them (in Toronto) now,” Wilson said. “We’ve shown our guys what they should be doing, they’re executing it, and we have really good goaltending.
“Before the break, I didn’t use Tyler Bozak to kill penalties and now he’s out there in every important situation. He’s good on faceoffs, which is huge. Sjostrom gets in shooting lanes and you’re seeing mostly young guys getting the job done; John Mitchell, Christian Hanson, Nikolai Kulemin, Bozak, Viktor Stalberg, Shoey and Wallin. We’ve gotten away from the older guys who’d struggled.”
Whether this team applies these lessons and others in 2010 remains to be seen or even whether some of these players are still here.
But for now, school is in session and the pupils can’t be happier.