An arrogant, egotistical taskmaster touching down in the Toronto fishbowl, Ron Wilson’s appointment may not have been an obvious choice with so many candidates in the close season merry-go-round, yet with Wilson’s strategy of lowering expectations helping stick the mantra of underdog on a franchise so long riddled with media expectation, the Maple Leafs have proven many commentators early season surprise package.
Perhaps one of Ron Wilson’s most notable early achievements in Toronto has been to convince the media frenzy that a 5-4-4 record is a success. Of course he has been helped by history, after years of abject, lethargic and heartless hockey permeating from a touted country club atmosphere bereft of any kind of ambition, Ron Wilson’s panache for publicly breathing accountability throughout the roster has turned the club around in the space of just two months into a run and gun, never say die team that skate hard and transcend many of the shortcomings witnessed under Paul Maurice. Toronto is once more a team opponents fear to face with their positive attitude making waves throughout the league.
For Leafs Nation, Toronto are no longer the team that roll over and die with mindless turnover D equaled ineptly with easily closed down dump and chase play. Fans now have a team that show spirit and desire with aplomb, even in defeat the Leafs have often looked good and that is something that has been sorely absent since the lockout. With the post season seeing much of the driftwood and disruptive influences shipped to pastures new, Wilson has been able to mould the club around his San Jose model. Subsequently the Air Canada Center has become privy to some new school west coast hockey epitomized by hard pressing and hard back checking offence and transitional defense with an onus on good puck possession. With a turnover of talent creating whispers of a protracted rebuilding era pre-season, much of the early surprise has emanated from the speed unto which the team have gelled and taken on board the teachings of a coach schooled in rapid turnarounds.
Of course one of the major exits has been the ubiquitous Mats Sundin, however after years of solid offensive service his embodiment of all that was the Maple Leafs came in a sunset era of mediocrity that seemed to question as much the ambition of the team as its talismanic veteran captain. Whilst the MLSE cooked their goose on the Sundin train when they tried shipping him at the trade deadline for a blockbuster deal that would never materialize, his leaving has provided a catalyst to the renewed focus seen throughout the Maple Leafs offensive game. With players no longer trying to pick out number thirteen in a high speed crowd Toronto’s attack has become a team venture with players tacking equal responsibility for Sundin’s lost numbers.
Subsequently the vacuum many feared would appear in Sundin’s absence has been averted despite many a column inch posturing his successor. Prime candidates such as Antropov, Hagman and Ponikorovsky are all unlikely point-a-game players but where the deficit has been cushioned most has been the depth lines where increased production has been met with game changing plays. Toronto has become a more rounded unit as opposed to the limelight weighted scales of the past. Furthermore with the detrimental cult of personality that once surrounded Mats Sundin now a distant memory, the Leafs have become a fundamentally more likeable team off the ice with lesser players experiencing unprecedented levels of upbeat exposure that, far from being distracting, has actually witnessed a positive effect on team morale owing to Ron Wilson’s ability to absorb media criticism.
Nonetheless few expect Toronto to inhabit a playoff berth for the rest of the season. Whilst their good start has seen them maintain eight in the Eastern Conference in early November there are inevitable potholes in the road, not only for the remainder of this season but the years that lay ahead. Whilst few seem to acknowledge it, Toronto has become one of those rarest of things, an original six team undergoing the potentially lengthy rigors of a complete rebuild. Owing to years of over zealous and impatient mismanagement, the Leafs slipped quietly into mediocrity due to their tacit inability to react to NHL trends, particularly the post lockout onus placed on scouting, drafting and development in an increasingly youthful league. Whilst the fantastically solid time eating defense of first year draftee Luke Schenn is a step in the right direction, the Leafs are a team with a dreadful record for converting draft day promise to NHL ice and the infrastructure and mechanisms that make up the chain of command, be it the uncertainty of interim GM Cliff Fletcher and the MLSE above, remain the same.
With the terminology of interim hanging around Cliff Fletchers neck like a millstone, many wonder how restricted his capacity to oversee a franchise renovation is, especially with talk of Brian Burke hanging around the press boxes of the Air Canada. Its clear Fletcher has been made aware of his place in the grand scheme cooked up by Richard Preddie and as a Maple Leaf through and through is undergoing his duties like a consummate pro. Regardless, Fletcher is a man once bitten after a series of disastrous and inept trades saw the Leafs derail after four straight playoff years resulting in his first exit from the hot seat in 1997. Whilst he showed he can still cut a trade on draft day, Fletchers capacity as GM will gradually become more ceremonial as the season wares on unless the MLSE rectify the situation ahead of schedule. How toothless this will leave a Leafs team still burdened with excessive cap hits come the trade deadline remains to be seen, but the traditional fire sales associated with a rebuild have yet to be truly realized whilst many feel the Marlies are being increasingly populated by the driftwood Toronto failed to shift in waivers.
Whilst the Burke rumors seemed to have quieted for now, despite his history with Ron Wilson, the backroom still seems to be missing the leadership so vital to a franchise moving forward whilst Wilson’s personality has all the elements of potential self combustion within the timeframe of his four year contract if he fails to be reigned in. It could be said that the Leafs are undergoing Ron Wilson’s honeymoon period. Whilst it may have lasted longer than most expected the stark reality of what lies ahead remain the same and with an inevitable need for gutting within the next couple of years and a knack for paying over the odds for contracts such as Jeff Finger, its clear tricks still have to be learned before Toronto can dream of following the post lockout Pittsburgh model they aspire too.
Nonetheless that doesn’t stop us from enjoying these opening sentences in the newest chapter in Leafs history, one which looks to be being addressed with a vigor not seen in Leafs nation for some time.