The Toronto Maple Leafs finished the first half the way they started the season - on a high, riding a three-game win streak and showing signs of competence after years of wandering in the NHL wilderness. It was the same right off the hop - four consecutive wins, renewed hope that maybe they were finally turning the corner.
The problem was those pesky 34 games in the middle, of which they managed only 10 regulation victories and left them so far back in the Eastern Conference standings that even their usual second-half surge probably isn't going to be enough to get them back into playoff contention.
So then, the challenge becomes what to do next - and how to manage the final 41 games, which began with Tuesday's date against the Western Conference's top regular-season team a year ago, the San Jose Sharks, Ron Wilson's old team. Wilson was after his 600th career victory Tuesday night; a lot of them came with the Sharks during a six-year stay with the team that featured a couple of quality regular seasons followed by unexpected playoff flops (in 2004 against Calgary and 2006 against the Oilers) and left them wondering if their championship window may be drawing to a close.
In Wilson's time, the Sharkies were in their heyday, at the opposite end of where the Leafs are today. They had completed a painful rebuilding process, were now ready to move into the league's elite, and did so - for quite some time now. That's always the problem of course - wondering when all the years of putting puzzle pieces in place finally pays dividends with a major step forward in the standings.
The Leafs are not there yet; the encouraging signs generally revolve around the process, something assistant coach Tim Hunter was discussing Tuesday morning. With the primary cast resting up to play their second game in two nights, Hunter put the reserves through their paces.
In Hunter's mind, there are two broad components involved in getting a club to its breakthrough moment.
One involves the individuals - seeing their skills and maturity all come together. The other is the team - and getting everybody to understand their responsibilities within how they want to play.
This year's Leafs, said Hunter, were a "young team with a lot of immaturity and a lack of experience in competing, game-in and game-out. You've got guys that can score but haven't always competed hard away from the puck or in front of the net. To get all these players to slowly mature and to fix the part of their games that need fixing was [the goal] They aren't completely fixed, but they have slowly bought into what we're selling. So you're seeing the Phil Kessels and [Mikhail]Grabovskis and [Nikolai]Kulemins and on the back end, [Luke]Schenn, get better."
As for better developing the team concept, Hunter acknowledged that defensively the team hasn't been great, but thought there were signs, as recently as Monday night's 3-2 win over the Los Angeles Kings, that things were getting better.
"In L.A., we had everybody buying in - winning battles, getting back for pucks first, getting pucks out around the boards," said Hunter. "It's experience - defensively, how to play those pucks around the boards, how to fight through pressure from the other team and get something going the other way.
"Then offensively, it's scoring goals, winning battles down low, fighting to get to the front of the net. If you look at the offensive zone being a layer out by the blue line, a layer in the middle of the ice and a layer around the front of the net - to get the puck from the third layer out by the blue line to the front of the net has been hard for us.
"The defencemen need to do a better job of getting their shots through and the forwards need to be willing to get to the front of the net to get deflections and screens and push the D out of the way so pucks can get through.
"It's simple stuff, but it takes a while for a team to jell or come together and make all those things happen. We've seen in the past month little bits of that coming together."
There's progress, in other words, that doesn't always immediately translate into points in the standings, and isn't apparent every single night either. Consistency - of the sort that produces narrow complete wins over L.A. - and fewer stretches like their 1-8-3 run earlier this year, will determine how many of these new, improving pieces will stay for the long haul, and how many general manager Brian Burke will exile as the trading deadline approaches.Report Typo/Error