Leafs will just have to wait
Already craving their next shot
LANCE HORNBY, QMI Agency
|Maple Leafs head coach Ron Wilson speaks to reporters during an end-of-the-season press conference at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto on April 11, 2011. (ALEX UROSEVIC/QMI Agency)
When the big sliding doors of their dressing room closed behind them for the summer, did the Maple Leafs’ karma go out the window?
To a man, at Monday’s exit meetings, they vowed to pick up in October right where they left off: An 11-point jump in the standings over 2009-10, playoff buzz and the most unity a Leafs room has shown in years. But forgive fans and media for rolling their eyes a few times when coach Ron Wilson and his earnest-sounding players conducted their annual locker-cleanout interviews, the sixth consecutive time they’ve had to explain missing the playoffs.
Give them credit for two months of good hockey. But they’ve closed the schedule looking strong before, only to find that six months until the next game is an eternity in the NHL, where 29 other teams are doing their own repairs, led by 14 non-playoff entries. Intrusions such as contracts, injuries and higher expectations will arise and distract from good intentions.
“It’s a long time to get back there,” centre Tim Brent said. “But from being a Leaf fan when I was growing up and now (playing here), I don’t think we’ve ever been this young. I think this group is going to stay in contact this summer and push each other to be ready.”
But Brent, for one, can’t even say if he’ll be back to help the improved penalty-killing unit. Left winger Clarke MacArthur, the club’s second-leading scorer. is going into a potentially messy contract year. James Reimer will come back as the No. 1 goalie, but he has lost the element of surprise on opponents who will be studying video of his 37 games this season.
Wilson -- who left the question of a contract extension for GM Brian Burke at his media post-mortem Tuesday -- has no doubt the 2011-12 Leafs will avoid falling into the same early hole of the past two seasons. He drew a parallel to Rory McIlroy’s implosion Sunday at the Masters to gaining experience under fire.
“Do you think Rory will ever win a major?” Wilson asked. “He has got the talent. So do we. But what did he say that he lacked? This year we piled up a bunch of experience at the end and I think that’s all it’s going to take for next year.
“That’s assuming everything stays the same and guys start where they left off. That’s always a dangerous assumption to make. We have to expect guys to play the way they did at the end. There will be a lot of young guys we’ll expect more from, to get stronger physically. They can watch the playoffs, learn from some of the experience of the other teams, identify themselves with skill sets of their peers.”
The Leafs have evolved into a greener team, but not quite totally by design. During the past two years, veterans such as Jean-Sebastien Giguere, Mike Komisarek, Tomas Kaberle, Jeff Finger, Francois Beauchemin, Matt Stajan, Niklas Hagman and Jason Blake found themselves with lesser roles or a ticket out. With the trading of Kaberle and Beauchemin, there looked to be a huge gap in the depth chart on defence, but Keith Aulie was ready to be called up and became the ideal partner for Dion Phaneuf. Carl Gunnarsson thrived on the extra minutes as Schenn’s partner.
“I’m comfortable with this (current) group more than any I’ve had (in three years),” Wilson said. “They’ve grown together, they’re believing together, without any baggage to carry along. That’s what helped us down the stretch, we got younger and a lot of them had a belief system.”
Third-year defenceman Luke Schenn rephrased it.
“We had a hunger, we had a taste (for playoffs) and for what the city could be like. In my time here, you just heard about ‘next year, next year,’ “
Brent, Darryl Boyce and Joey Crabb weren’t on the radar in September.
“It may come from within,” Wilson said. “We had guys come up this year whom I had no idea could play in the NHL. We had 12 players play for both the Marlies and the Leafs this year and that’s a lot for a team that moved up as much as we did.
“The future is pretty bright and we have to keep rewarding those guys. I’m sure when they have their exit meetings (Monday) with the Marlies (the farm team, drained of its best prospects, also missed playoffs), I’m sure it’s going to be one of the things that is talked about.”
And when they come back in autumn, the Leafs have to remember where they left the key to the door.