Wilson regrets not starting with kids

LANCE HORNBY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 3:03 PM ET

Regrets, Ron Wilson’s had a few.

As the Maple Leafs held their exit meetings on Monday morning at the Air Canada Centre, the coach said he would have handled a few things much differently early in 2009-10, before it became a lost cause, the fifth straight season without playoffs.

Wilson is coming back as coach, the first in Leafs history to miss the playoffs two straight seasons and return for a third chance. But he said there will be a different mindset and new wrinkles to the three week training camp in September.

“If I could do anything over again, I’d have gone with all the young guys I thought had made our team at training camp who had out-played a lot of veterans,” Wilson lamented. “But I couldn’t do that (because it was easier said than done to dump big salaries on the farm team). Next year, I don’t think we’ll be facing that.”

Wilson’s team ended the year as the youngest in the NHL after sweeping trades by general manager Brian Burke, who was also slow on the draw to make some changes as the Leafs won just one of 13 games early in the year.

“Players such as Christian Hanson and Tyler Bozak got about 30 or 35 games in at the end a nice dipping of their toes in the pool,” Wilson said. “We pushed you in the deep end and you were able to get out of it. Next year, you won’t have life jackets. We hope that they do the (conditioning) work in the summer and we come back a different team.

“I wanted from the get-go to have a young team. Now, I don’t have any bad habits to eradicate from a whole group. These guys have tasted some success, now we have to go out and improve on it as group.”

Wilson is going to utilize the exhibition schedule much differently, citing a failure to work on special teams enough in the autumn (Leafs were last in both power play and penalty killing).

“Hopefully, our focus next year will not be about using 35 guys in the games and not getting off to a good start (on special teams). I’ll focus on putting the guys we know who are going to be on the power play with the guys we know will kill penalties and use them exclusively in our pre-season games.

“You go through 10 days of training camp and your whole groups has the day off. My idea for next year is to have a couple of days off for different groups of guys. That’s something I have to spend time this summer working out, how to do it right with the number of exhibition games. I still have to have practices in there with a reasonable amount of guys.

“You get into a mindset as a coach about the game and forget about the little things, such as power play and penalty killing. I’ll be making a schedule and modifying it through the summer. Next year we’ll be doing things in ways I haven’t done before. Every coach’s bane here in Toronto is getting off to a good start when you have nine exhibition games," Wilson said.

Wilson predicts “four or five” new faces next season but Burke will comment on that later this week.

“There are probably some free agents here who won’t be re-signed, at least not until we see what’s available in trades, the draft and free agency,” Wilson said. “We need size, but we need our younger guys to fill out. (Winger) Luca Caputi needs to put on 15 pounds. We’ll have the same young guys, I just have to figure a way to parse out the right games to the right guys at the right time (in exhibition play).”

Leading scorer Phil Kessel was the only player to reveal he was playing injured at the end, having suffered a minor abdominal wall tear in the April 3 game against Boston. But rest is the only thing prescribed and by July, it’s expected defenceman Mike Komisarek (shoulder surgery) will be ready to resume full workouts.

Negotiations with goaltender Jonas Gustavsson on a long-term deal are expected to heat up soon.

“Of course I would like to be back,” Gustavsson said. “I don’t want to wait until August. It would nice to have things done. But I don’t feel any stress about it right now.”

Tomas Kaberle said he remains hopeful of returning to the Leafs in the fall, despite a window in his contract that will allow him to be traded in the summer.


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