TORONTO - Nikolai Kulemin doesnít look much like Darcy Tucker or sound at all like him, but the words, spoken in a different tone, in a different accent, in different years, were basically the same from those of years gone by.
It was no different Monday for Dion Phaneuf or Tim Brent or Luke Schenn or Phil Kessel any of the Maple Leafs who sat in a chair in the media room at the Air Canada Centre and tried to explain why the team was out of the playoffs once again and why next year would be different.
The players change and the years change, but itís the same old song every April for the Leafs. The singers are different but the lyrics are not.
There is nothing wrong with the roster, Tucker used to say and Mats Sundin used to echo and Bryan McCabe insisted.
All they need is a chance to jell.
All they need is more time to get it right.
All they need to do is carry over their play from the end of the season into the beginning of next season.
What has changed is how they convey their message. Back in the days before everything was about controlling the media, and restricting access, we used to talk to players in the dressing room on locker-cleanout day. We could actually have conversations that werenít press conferences and werenít shown live on television. You could converse in the hallways, about life, about hockey, about summer plans, about nonsense. It was rather human.
Now itís rather distant, but when it comes to the team, the answers are quite similar to what was heard yesterday. When asked what the Leafs needed to do to improve next season, captain Phaneuf said thatís general manager Brian Burkeís job. In that, he is correct. I used to ask Mats Sundin the same question at the end of difficult Toronto seasons. He had opinions. He had ideas. He just never chose to express them publicly.
I used to spar with Sundin that he, more than anyone else, had earned the right to speak his mind (one year he wanted the Leafs to sign Teemu Selanne). But hockey is so much about the party line and he was never one who ventured far from it.
The optimism at the end of this Leafs season without playoffs is at a record high. And, in fairness, unlike past seasons, there is some reason to believe.
When you listen to James Reimer, again, you have hope for the future that he never changes a bit. What a fine young man this fellow seems to be and hopefully he is that fine a goaltender for the future.
Coach Ron Wilson, three years on the job and three years out of the playoffs, was almost exuberant in his enthusiasm for the Leafs future. The Leafs are, according to Wilson, this close to being a playoff team and just two or three players away from being Stanley Cup contenders.
If the players are Daniel and Henrik, he has a point. Otherwise, were not so sure.
Wilson didnít like being asked again about the inept Leafs special teams three years as coach, three years of dreadful special teams and boasted somewhat defensively that the Leafs had scored the ninth most power-play goals in the NHL. Thatís a nice stat, even if itís complete fiction. The Leafs finished tied for 14th in power-play goals, with, percentage-wise, the 22nd-best power play in the league. If you add in the large number of short-handed goals relinquished, the ninth-place number Wilson boasted about isnít even close.
Wilson did say he didnít anticipate making any changes to his coaching staff, which means the group that hasnít been able to solve this puzzle through 246 games will have another 82 to try to get it right.
It has to be better next year. Just ask the players. Just ask the coach. You say something often enough and it becomes true.
But excuse me for being curious and having doubts: Iíve heard all this before.