If you listen carefully to Ron Wilson's answers to the usual questions about Nazem Kadri and several other newcomers on the forward lines who dominated Toronto Maple Leafs training-camp debates, you will hear confirmation of a nagging doubt that refuses to go away.
Forget the question of whether Kadri is going to make the Leafs this year (he's not). The state of the Leafs' most established and expensive unit is a much bigger question as Thursday night's NHL opener against the Montreal Canadiens approaches.
The defence, along with goaltenders Jean-Sébastien Giguère and Jonas Gustavsson, has yet to show it is ready to play up to its $26-million-plus (U.S.) price tag. The head coach admitted as much in the midst of some answers the other night about what he would like his charges to work on now that the preseason games are finished and three days of nothing but practice lie ahead.
"Little nuances, little bad habits, things we need to work on defensively," Wilson said of his to-do list. A little later, Wilson talked about "breakdowns in coverage on the back end," specifically absolving the forwards of any blame.
This is not encouraging, since the Leafs defence is supposed to be as accomplished as just about any other NHL team's. But Dion Phaneuf, François Beauchemin, Tomas Kaberle, Luke Schenn, Mike Komisarek, Carl Gunnarsson and company have much work ahead of them.
According to Wilson, the work will start with how the defencemen take out the opposition along the boards. "They've got their sticks on people's heads," the coach said. "There are some things we have to hammer on in practice."
Preseason statistics do not mean much because players who are not going to make the team contribute to them. But they do offer at least an indication of where a team is headed and the Leafs' numbers give cold comfort.
The Leafs finished with a 5-3-1 preseason record, distressingly similar to last year's 6-3 exhibition mark, which led to a 29th-place finish. In those nine games, the Leafs surrendered 31 goals, an average of 3.44 a game, which was worse than last season's 3.21 average, which was 29th among the NHL's 30 teams.
The defencemen spoke hopefully after their last preseason game on Saturday night, a 4-2 win over the Detroit Red Wings' regular goaltender Jimmy Howard and a group of their AHL players about how much better their penalty killing is this time around. Well, considering the Leafs were dead last in 2009-10 with a paltry success rate of 14 per cent, mustering up any sort of improvement is not too hard. And it must be noted these penalty killers still coughed up two power-play goals to the Red Wings' scrubs on Saturday.
Despite the number of changes up front, the Leafs' offence is still on the thin side, especially at centre, so if the team is to step up from its status as a doormat the defence has to show the way. It cannot afford to fall flat on its face as it did a year ago when the Leafs won exactly one of their first 13 games, crippling themselves by the end of October.
Much of the blame for that was laid at the door of departed goaltender Vesa Toskala. This season, the thinking goes, things will be much better with Giguère around for a full season and with Gustavsson healthier and more experienced.
Well, the most you can say so far is maybe. Neither goaltender was spectacular in the preseason.
As for the rest of the team, there were so many changes among the forwards it is hard to say just where the Leafs will finish in the Eastern Conference. One thing you can say for certain is that they are a much feistier group but that is to be expected when Brian Burke is picking your team.