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Ron Wilson

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Dion Phaneuf

Let’s start this off with a bold proclamation:
Dion Phaneuf’s 2013 campaign was his best season in the NHL to date.

I really believe that. Phaneuf has rounded into the complete, 1A defenseman that Brian Burke and Dave Nonis envisioned when they swindled the Calgary Flames into one of the most lopsided trades in recent NHL history.

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The Leafs are all but set to make the playoffs for the first time in nine years, yet there is an inordinate amount of vitriol being directed at Toronto’s head coach Randy Carlyle, for some reason.

Considering pretty well everyone predicted the Leafs not to make the playoffs, it’s pretty funny to see the coach leading a surprising playoff appearance – and a team that’s currently fifth in the East and 7th in the League – get chastised

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The Toronto Maple Leafs are sitting in fifth place in the Eastern Conference (fourth in the Eastern Conference in wins) and some folks, even Leaf fans who write about the game, are simply writing it of as nothing other than luck. Puck luck. Good goaltending. Streaky scorers. Bad coaching is even bandied around as one of the reasons they’re bad – but not showing it yet – this season.

The truth is that the Leafs are playing right about where they should have been last year—offensively—but with a system that allows them to hold leads, shut down teams when they need to, kill off potential momentum robbing power-plays and turn them something that breeds confidence in their ability to defend and in their goalies’ ability to stop pucks. The two are not mutually exclusive.

Confidence was and is a big difference between this season and last. They were a confident group last season – arriving almost mid-summer for early camp and hitting the ground running – got off to a good start and were confident in their ability to score almost at will. But look no further than the two losses against Boston (3-2 until an empty netter finished it 4-2) and Pittsburgh (5-4 SO) – those were games that would have been horrendous blowouts last year. I think everyone was expecting them to be as much, but both turned into tight games in the end. That wasn’t on the strength of out-of-worldly goaltending, either.

The team has adopted a better structured system—even strength and on the PK—that has allowed them to mitigate the second chances that sank a lot of games last season. Rebound control is still a big issue with both Reimer and Scrivens, however getting good looks at pucks and directing rebounds into less dangerous areas allows them and the team in front of them to bend more without breaking into the type of horrible collapses that plagued the team last year. I feel that not fronting the opposing forwards—standing in front hoping for a shot block—and instead reverting to a method of clearing the front of the net, like defenceman have for decades, is much more effective for this group.

If Toronto were to be compared to any team right now, it would have to be the Ottawa Senators, as much as it pains me to say it. Both have benefited tremendously from strong AHL teams and excellent AHL coaching. Ottawa were a laugh to start the season last season—most were predicting a lottery pick, and instead they took the New York Rangers to game 7 of a close series that could have easily went either way. Toronto is getting exactly the same collection of things this year, between the internal development, the coach and the goaltending. The Marlies, in my opinion, were robbed of a Calder Cup by bad injury luck and I felt that, when healthy, they were the superior team. Regardless, they had the best PK in the league, the best goaltending tandem, and the best shutdown D pair in the league. Say what you will, but it’s impressive that they Leafs can walk three AHL defenceman onto the big club and have them play as well as they have. It’s a credit to the Marlies that they are able to do that so seamlessly. They aren’t ideal defence pairings, but this is the sort of depth that we, as Leaf fans, have been pining for.  The first wave of development seems to have pushed through for the Leafs, and while the Marlies are completely depleted right now that will change as the next round of Burke draftees start to migrate from Jr. to the AHL. This is what a rebuild looks like.

So, just how good are they? I think they’re just that: “good,” if Boston is “Excellent” and Pittsburgh is “Very Good” to “Excellent” (they lack depth on D and a consistently good goalie). I think the Leafs were trending downwards quickly two and three seasons ago and are quickly trending upwards now. It should have happened a year ago, but … Ron Wilson.

It will be interesting to see how Dave Nonis makes his next two big moves to meet the club’s main two needs: A first line center who can play the game at a fast pace and is able to make plays at the same speed as Kessel and Lupul, and another top 4 two-way defenceman—preferably of the top-2 variety. Those moves don’t present themselves very often throughout the course of the season, and we’ll all be curious as to how he keeps adding top-flight talent to a group that has improved internally and is looking to advance gears in order to enter the conversation beside the Bostons and Pittsburghs of the league.

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Tuesday Morning Leafs Links…

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Photo: Andy Marlin/NHLI via Getty Images

There probably isn’t a coach in the NHL on a shorter leash going into the 2011-12 season than the Leafs’ own Ron Wilson. Without a contract extension, and entering the final season of his existing deal, the bench boss is fully aware that if he fails to deliver results early on, he’s done. It’s really as simple as that.

In the past we’ve often questioned whether Wilson would survive a brutal losing skid here or there (or everywhere.) Many of us have discussed - at length - the possibility of Burke exploring other options in the offseason. But none of this has ever come to fruition.

Firing a coach is a pretty enormous decision – even moreso when that coach happens to be a friend of yours, with whom you also share a past professionally.

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If the NHL handed out awards for half seasons, would there be any doubt that Toronto Maple Leafs coach Ron Wilson would be among a handful of candidates for Coach of the Year for the second half of this NHL season?  After suffering a 3-2 defeat to the Columbus Blue Jackets on December 30th, 2010 the Leafs record sat at an uninspiring 13-19-4.  Much of the blame for that record was placed squarely on the shoulders of our at times moody head coach.

I don’t recall a post game (win or lose) theme that didn’t in some shape or form include vast criticism of our coaching staff and the inevitable “Fire Ron Wilson” mantra.  Some of that critique might have been warranted but when considering the goaltending available to him to that point it is hard to solely blame one man (Ron Wilson) for the first half struggles of an entire team.

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    The Toronto Maple Leafs had one day to stir over their frustrating overtime loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning and were hoping to turn the page and move forward as they welcomed the Edmonton Oilers to the Air Canada Centre. With the Oilers in town, fans were treated to a battle between two of the league’s youngest and quickest teams. Unfortunately for both organizations it seems the inexperience is keeping them among the bottom of the NHL Standings and in most statistical categories. On this night, that youth and excitement was one sided as the Oilers counter attacked their way to a 5-0 victory.

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      Finishing 0-2 and recording just one goal following their weekend road trip, the Toronto Maple Leafs anxiously returned home to the Air Canada Centre, looking to their steady play there as inspiration to get back on track. Despite their dreadful offense on the road, the Leafs have managed to score 12 goals at home in their last three games, all of which have been victories. Eager to continue that trend, the Leafs would need a flawless effort to contain a hungry Tampa Bay Lightning team. After dropping their last two games, the Lightning’s schedule was blessed with a game against the desperate and fragile Leafs. Although the score was in their favor and the game in their hands, the seemingly inevitable collapse transpired and the Lightning took full advantage, bolting to a 4-3 overtime victory.

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        Kicking off the first of two divisional games on consecutive nights, the Toronto Maple Leafs traveled a short trip down the QEW to take on the Buffalo Sabres at the HSBC Arena in the second of six meetings between the two teams. After tonight’s 3-1 victory, the Sabres now hold a 2-0 record against the Leafs following a 3-2 shootout decision on Nov. 6 in Toronto.

        During most of Monday’s victory over the Dallas Stars, The Leafs controlled the play on both sides of the ice, and looked to build on that momentum as they searched for their second road win in 6 games. In fact, not since Oct. 15 have the Leafs been able to find the win column while playing away from the Air Canada Centre. If that trend is to change, the offense needs to be a factor and become involved rather quickly, especially against a Buffalo Sabres team who is struggling at home. Although it is the obvious intention, Leaf forward and former Sabre, Clarke MacArthur believes the key to his team’s success was to open the scoring early and build from there.

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        Phillip MacCallum/Getty Images

        During the doom and gloom of a lengthy losing streak it can be easy to focus only on the negative aspects of a hockey team and I have noticed my last few pieces have done just that.  Today I thought I would take a look at some of the positive and promising assets the Toronto Maple Leafs currently possess as opposed to what they ultimately lack.

        Although they are much maligned and even despised by some the ownership of the Toronto Maple Leafs has never been a serious impediment to the success of the team, contrary to popular belief.  Sure MLSE values a profit as most corporations do and yes they charge an arm and a leg for even a lousy ticket, but the fact is the market for all things Leafs is extremely strong.  With the current supply and demand the way it is the pricing issue will not go away or change, ever.

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        Claus Andersen/Getty Images

        It is a popular war cry teams will make when in the midst of an unlikely or unexpected championship run.  But what exactly is needed to make a championship contending hockey club and just how far are the Maple Leafs from truly becoming one?  I thought I would attempt to answer that very question while trying to look at how a successful championship contending hockey team is currently composed and then comparing it to the Leafs situation and roster makeup.

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        With the typical (and expected) “Fire Ron Wilson” sentiment being thrown around after another tough loss (now five in a row) I thought I would enter the fray and share my opinion on the matter.  It is often easy to blame the coach and the old adage “it’s easier to fire one coach than 20 players” has certainly been applied in the NHL over the past 25 years but in the case of the Maple Leafs, is the coach really to blame?

        I had written a story in the preseason that one of the potential problems I saw going into this year was the chance that Brian Burke’s general strategy really wouldn’t mesh well with the roster given to Ron Wilson.  The whole top-six and bottom-six forward approach is fine in theory when you have Henrik and Daniel Sedin, Marcus Naslund, Brendan Morrison and a prime Todd Bertuzzi at your disposal – or Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf and Teemu Selanne etc.

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        The one area of weakness that was continually mentioned in the offseason centred around the Toronto Maple Leafs lack of scoring depth and the relatively lacklustre top six forward unit overall.  We heard it time and again as the team’s brain trust attempted to move our best defenseman over the past decade for any forward who could be added to one of the top two scoring lines.  At the same time we heard that the defence core we possessed was solid from one through seven and our goaltending should be hugely improved.

        So should it really come as any surprise early into the season that our scoring depth is starting to be a bit of a concern? 

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        Nothing gets Leafs Nation into a frenzy quicker than some good old fashioned trade rumours and with the recent news breaking that Brian Burke is “open for business” it was obviously going to make headlines.  Bob McKenzie was told by his sources that the Leafs had an offer on the table involving two bottom six forwards coming to Toronto for one of our current NHL bottom six forwards and an AHL player.  Burke basically inferred the offer was half way decent so it likely would have solidified our bottom six forward lines slightly, but nothing to really get worked up about.

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          Anybody still want to debate the wisdom of starting Gustavsson against the Penguins?

          For my money, this was the right play.   Anyway you slice it, after a 2-0 start against two undermanned/terrible teams,  tonight’s game against the Penguins was set to be a measuring stick of sorts (despite the fact that they were somewhat undermanned themselves).  If Wilson runs his number one guy out there and he gets torched, the Leafs’ momentum comes to a crashing halt: we are measured, and found wanting.  Instead, the coach pitches the Monster at a talented (and desperate for a home win) Pittsburgh team, and sends a message to the rest of the squad: bring your lunchpail and hardhat, it will be necessary to win the little battles along the boards and elsewhere on the ice to have a chance at two points in this game.

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          The Toronto Maple Leafs are set to visit the Pittsburgh Penguins tonight at the Consol Energy Arena. The Penguins have yet to win at home this season and get another opportunity to erase that stat tonight against a Leafs team that is hoping to remain undefeated. Jonas Gustavsson will get his first start between the pipes according to Sportsnet.

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          Week one of the Toronto Maple Leafs schedule is in the books, and while it only featured two games, there is plenty to talk about as far as the season goes.  The Maple Leafs are off to a 2-0 start, having won their second game of the season nearly one month ahead of the time they got win two last season.

          Through week one of the season, here are the Maple Leafs player power rankings, as seen by me.

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          The winless Ottawa Senators visit the undefeated Toronto Maple Leafs tonight at the ACC. With a victory this evening, the Leafs would have their best start to a season since ’99-00 when they won three straight out of the gate. It’s just two games, but the symbolism of a return to the pre-lockout days – let alone a chance to put the Sens at 0-2 and gain early points on another division rival – would be nothing but sweet.

          After what seemed like a lifetime of waiting for fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs, the new look squad hit the ice Thursday night for their home opener against the arch rival Montreal Canadiens, and with it marked the true dawning of a new age in Leafs Nation.

          While it’s true the hiring of Ron Wilson and Brian Burke will go down as the day the team began to turn the page on years of management misfortune, and the Dion Phaneuf day could very well end up being the trade that sparks the team forward much like the Doug Gilmour trade before it, Thursday night’s season premiere was really the first time since all this has taken place that it was truly a different roster.

          Gone were the incumbents of past regimes, It was finally Brian Burke’s team.  Having flipped the entire roster (sans Tomas Kaberle and Jeff Finger) Burke’s vision of the team could finally be implemented, his stamp beginning to form.

          And it was, for one game at least, as advertised.

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          The Leafs head to the capital tonight to take on their bitter provincial rivals, the Ottawa Senators, for the third time in seven preseason games.

          Tonight’s game figures to be the last chance for players on the bubble, including highly-touted Nazem Kadri, to make a lasting impression. When asked about these players, head coach Ron Wilson was emphatic:

          “When the puck drops on the first day, you better be ready to go. No tip-toeing around. No ‘oh, the water’s cold, I’ll wait until it warms up a bit’. Nope, you’re diving in and the guys who didn’t, as [Leafs' GM Brian Burke] said, they’re waiting by the bus stop. Well, they missed it, the bus already left. Now their job is running down the road hoping they can get on.” (via)

          With the pre-season set to end with a home-and-home against Detroit to open the month of October, the general sentiment is the Leafs will use a roster for those games comprised of the players who are expected be with the NHL club on opening night. For Nazem Kadri, John Mitchell, Jay Rosehill and Mike Zigomanis, tonight (or by a slim chance the first of the two Detroit games) may be their last shot.

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          McKegg will be one to watch tonight

          The Leafs face the Flyers tonight in London in what will surely be a physical endeavor. Paul Hendrick over at MapleLeafs.com has the lines for tonight’s game:

          Forwards

          Versteeg-Kadri-Armstrong

          Caputi-Brent-Mueller

          McKegg-Irwin-Boyce

          Rosehill-Hanson-Brown