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Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Ron Wilson watches the final seconds wind down during third period NHL hockey action against the Vancouver Canucks in Vancouver, Saturday October 24, 2009. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Richard Lam (ANDY CLARK)
Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Ron Wilson watches the final seconds wind down during third period NHL hockey action against the Vancouver Canucks in Vancouver, Saturday October 24, 2009. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Richard Lam (ANDY CLARK)

A big year for Ron Wilson Add to ...

It's certainly no secret that this could be a do-or-die season for Ron Wilson. Few head coaches in the NHL survive three playoff-less campaigns, regardless of circumstances.

And from his comments on Wednesday, a day before his team opens the season at home against the Montreal Canadiens, it's also clear the Toronto Maple Leafs coach is well aware of the math involved in his team making an unlikely leap into the postseason.

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"Probably 92, 93 points - that's usually the number," Wilson said of the mark needed to finish eighth in the Eastern Conference, his team's modest goal this season. "Last year was a little bit less, but who knows? Who can predict that?"

Based on the five seasons since the lockout, the average eighth-place team in what has been a weaker conference has finished with 91.8 points, nearly 18 more than Toronto posted last season en route to finishing 15th and well off the pace.

Those eighth-place teams also averaged 21 more goals for and 29 fewer against than last season's Leafs, showing just how enormous an improvement Wilson's troops need to make to try and duplicate what Montreal accomplished in the spring.

Looking back at last season, however, Wilson said he takes comfort in two different figures.

One, the 29-31-9 record the Leafs posted after a horrendous 1-7-5 start to the season, an 80-point pace over a full season. And two, the 13-10-3 record Toronto had over the final 26 games of the season, which works out to a 91-point pace after captain Dion Phaneuf and netminder Jean-Sébastien Giguère had joined the team via trade.

Add in a few off-season additions such as wingers Kris Versteeg, Clarke MacArthur and Colby Armstrong, and the Leafs brass are hoping that's enough for a roughly 50-goal improvement in terms of goals for minus goals against.

"We're better with the people that we have," Wilson said. "We're confident we're better in terms of talent."

There has also been a shift in philosophy for the Leafs, one where the veterans in place when general manager Brian Burke arrived were at first given a chance to show what they could do.

Twenty-two months later, most have been shipped out of town.

Wilson also appears to be moving away from a teaching mentality - where young players were inserted into the lineup simply to help them improve - with the presence of minor-league veterans Tim Brent and Mike Zigomanis a sign the coach isn't willing to gift roster spots to anyone because of their pedigree.

He needs to win now - and said Wednesday he won't be waiting on players to turn their games around if they struggle.

"What they know is if they're having an off night, they may not play," Wilson said. "That's what's been presented. … Come ready to play and you'll play. If you're not ready and say I need a period to get into the game, we've got other guys who are ready, equally as good if not better in that situation, so they'll play."

A year ago, the Leafs started the season at the Air Canada Centre against Montreal full of optimism, only to lose the opener with 13 seconds left in overtime and failing to pick up their first win for another 25 days.

This time around, there's far more on the line - for Wilson more than anyone. Another poor start and it's likely the Leafs coach will be the first in the NHL on the hot seat.

"I believe our team feels good about itself right now, more so than I've ever felt here," Wilson said. "We've just got to go out and play our game [on Thursday]and if we do that, then we have a pretty good chance of winning."

 

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