Maple Leafs: Playoffs or bust

Share This Story



John-Michael Liles started making phone calls when he learned had been traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs. After spending his entire NHL career in Colorado, he was anxious to hear about how life was going to change.

''I was able to talk to Darcy Tucker a bit, obviously a great figure in Leafs fans' memories,'' said the veteran defenseman. ''For me, he was a good sounding board to talk to. I actually spoke to him right after I was traded. He's been a great help for me.

''He kind of just laid it out for me, he said: 'You'll love playing here. It's an unbelievable organization. It's a great city.'''

Of course, Tucker was around for the Maple Leafs' last run of prosperity, a period that has long since faded from view.

The city hasn't been so kind to hockey players in recent years while general manager Brian Burke completely turned over the roster, showing little patience for those struggling to fit in or make an impact. And with the team now locked in a franchise-worst stretch of six seasons outside of the playoffs, it sounds as if there'll be even more urgency.

''I'm not worried about where we're going to be in two or three years,'' coach Ron Wilson said. ''My primary responsibility is making the playoffs this year and getting off to a good start.''

More than anything, the Leafs are hoping to pick up where they left off last season. After enduring a miserable 1-8-3 stretch in October and November, they climbed back into the Eastern Conference playoff race in the second half behind goalie James Reimer, who ascended from No. 4 on the depth chart to claim the No. 1 job.

Reimer signed a $5.4 million, three-year extension over the summer and must now prove his 37-game audition last season was no fluke.

''Good goaltending goes a long way in our league,'' Wilson said. ''A great goalie can smooth over a lot of rough edges and make up for mistakes that happen in front of him. If you don't trust your goalie, your confidence sinks.''

The group in front of him should be better. Liles and Cody Franson were acquired to add depth to a blue-line corps that already included Luke Schenn, Dion Phaneuf, Carl Gunnarsson, Mike Komisarek and Keith Aulie.

The Leafs were ranked 24th in goals against last season and are looking for a big improvement in that area.

''I've never changed my philosophy, which has been that unless you can keep the puck out of your own net you're not going to have a championship team,'' Burke said. ''To me it's like pitching in baseball. You can have eight Hall of Famers in the field (but) if you don't have pitching you're not going to win. In my mind, championship teams start on the back end of the rink.

''I think this group we put together on the blue line is as competitive as anybody has.''

An area of concern that remains is scoring.

After losing out to the New York Rangers in bidding for free-agent center Brad Richards, Burke attempted to address a weakness up the middle by signing Tim Connolly and trading for Matthew Lombardi, who was limited to just two games with Nashville a year ago because of a concussion.

Connolly is expected to start the year between Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul on a line that will be counted on to help carry the load offensively. The Mikhail Grabovski-Nikolai Kulemin-Clarke MacArthur unit, Toronto's best last season with 80 goals between them, remains intact.

''I think we have two lines that will be competing for primary duties on the power play,'' Wilson said.

Lombardi was only cleared for contact midway through training camp, but is still hoping to be ready for the regular-season opener against Montreal on Oct. 6. He could play either wing or center on the third line.

Arguably the biggest change over the summer came behind the bench, where Greg Cronin and Scott Gordon were added to Wilson's staff after Burke urged his head coach to fire assistants Tim Hunter and Keith Acton. Toronto's specialty teams have struggled during Wilson's three-year tenure as head coach - the penalty killing was 28th last season while the power play was 22nd - and the GM felt it was time for some fresh ideas.

The staff gathered at Wilson's offseason home in North Carolina last month to start discussing strategy.

''I think every coach has some philosophies and beliefs,'' said Gordon, a former head coach with the New York Islanders. ''You've got to try to find what works for you that works for the group. You can't jam everything home that you believe in to make yourself happy - everything's got to kind of work together. ...

''I think some fresh ideas from Greg and myself to go along with all of the years of experience that Ron has, hopefully it ends up complementing each other.''

The pressure will be on right from opening night.

Wilson's future is already a hot-button topic in the city - he's in the final year of his contract - and the Leafs open the season with five consecutive games at Air Canada Centre. Throughout training camp, the team has stressed the need to set the tone for a good season right out of the gate.

''We want to be a playoff team, that's our goal,'' said Phaneuf, entering his second year as captain. ''The biggest thing from my experience of playing in the league is you have to get off to a good start and you've got to be consistent. You can't have the week-long (losing) slides or the two-week slides, they really hurt you.''

Tagged: Sabres, Avalanche, Maple Leafs, Predators, Tim Connolly, Phil Kessel

Related Stories

Member Comments

Please note by clicking on "Post comment" you acknowledge that you have read the Terms of Use and the comment you are posting is in compliance with such terms. Be Polite. Inappropriate posts may be removed by the moderator.

powered by

Play Hockey Simulation Game on WhatIfSports

NHL Videos

Toews, Kane: Easy decision to resign with Blackhawks Posted: Jul 17, 2014
Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane say their decision to sign matching 8-year, $84M...

LA mayor 'F-bombs' Kings rally Posted: Jun 17, 2014
Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti toasts the Stanley Cup champion Kings in front o...

Kings, fans celebrate Stanley Cup Posted: Jun 16, 2014
Kings players celebrate winning the Stanley Cup with a parade through downtown L...

More Than Sports on MSN

Fox Sports Store

    itemName itemURL imageSrc price itemDescription
    Reebok Sidney Crosby Pittsburgh Penguins Premier Hockey Jersey - Black http://shop.foxsports.com/FOX_Pittsburgh_Penguins/browse/featuredproduct/175178/source/foxsports_prsp_ca http://images.footballfanatics.com/FFImage/thumb.aspx?i=/productImages/_175000/FF_175178_xl.jpg&w=100 159.95 Reebok Sidney Crosby Pittsburgh Penguins Premier Hockey Jersey - Black
    Reebok Dallas Stars White Premier Hockey Jersey http://shop.foxsports.com/FOX_Dallas_Stars/browse/featuredproduct/243363/source/foxsports_prsp_ca http://images.footballfanatics.com/FFImage/thumb.aspx?i=/productImages/_243000/FF_243363_xl.jpg&w=100 124.95 Reebok Dallas Stars White Premier Hockey Jersey
    Reebok Tampa Bay Lightning Primary Logo T-Shirt - Royal Blue http://shop.foxsports.com/FOX_Tampa_Bay_Lightning/browse/featuredproduct/301017/source/foxsports_prsp_ca http://images.footballfanatics.com/FFImage/thumb.aspx?i=/productImages/_301000/ff_301017_xl.jpg&w=100 19.95 Reebok Tampa Bay Lightning Primary Logo T-Shirt - Royal Blue
    Majestic Anaheim Ducks Black Official Logo Full Zip Hoodie Sweatshirt http://shop.foxsports.com/FOX_Anaheim_Ducks/browse/featuredproduct/398322/source/foxsports_prsp_ca http://images.footballfanatics.com/FFImage/thumb.aspx?i=/productImages/_398000/FF_398322_xl.jpg&w=100 43.99 Majestic Anaheim Ducks Black Official Logo Full Zip Hoodie Sweatshirt
    Detroit Red Wings Youth Black Southpaw Backpack http://shop.foxsports.com/FOX_Detroit_Red_Wings/browse/featuredproduct/403205/source/foxsports_prsp_ca http://images.footballfanatics.com/FFImage/thumb.aspx?i=/productImages/_403000/FF_403205_xl.jpg&w=100 24.95 Detroit Red Wings Youth Black Southpaw Backpack
    Reebok Chicago Blackhawks #88 Patrick Kane Red Premier Hockey Jersey http://shop.foxsports.com/FOX_Chicago_Blackhawks/browse/featuredproduct/408123/source/foxsports_prsp_ca http://images.footballfanatics.com/FFImage/thumb.aspx?i=/productImages/_408000/FF_408123_xl.jpg&w=100 159.95 Reebok Chicago Blackhawks #88 Patrick Kane Red Premier Hockey Jersey
    Majestic New Jersey Devils Red Felt Tek Patch Pullover Hoodie Sweatshirt http://shop.foxsports.com/FOX_New_Jersey_Devils/browse/featuredproduct/456774/source/foxsports_prsp_ca http://images.footballfanatics.com/FFImage/thumb.aspx?i=/productImages/_456000/ff_456774_xl.jpg&w=100 47.99 Majestic New Jersey Devils Red Felt Tek Patch Pullover Hoodie Sweatshirt
    Vancouver Canucks 2011 NHL Western Conference Champions Hockey Stick http://shop.foxsports.com/FOX_Vancouver_Canucks/browse/featuredproduct/665779/source/foxsports_prsp_ca http://images.footballfanatics.com/FFImage/thumb.aspx?i=/productImages/_665000/ff_665779_xl.jpg&w=100 11.95 Vancouver Canucks 2011 NHL Western Conference Champions Hockey Stick
    Majestic New York Islanders Royal Blue Felt Tek Patch Pullover Hoodie Sweatshirt http://shop.foxsports.com/FOX_New_York_Islanders/browse/featuredproduct/752594/source/foxsports_prsp_ca http://images.footballfanatics.com/FFImage/thumb.aspx?i=/productImages/_752000/ff_752594_xl.jpg&w=100 47.99 Majestic New York Islanders Royal Blue Felt Tek Patch Pullover Hoodie Sweatshirt