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The Toronto Maple Leafs coaching staff, left to right, Rob Zettler, Keith Acton, Ron Wilson, and Tim Hunter. (Peter Power)
The Toronto Maple Leafs coaching staff, left to right, Rob Zettler, Keith Acton, Ron Wilson, and Tim Hunter. (Peter Power)

Leafs coaching staff sticks to game plan Add to ...

In 12 years as Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Ron Wilson's right-hand man, former NHL tough guy Tim Hunter has seen it all.

A run to the final in 1998 with the Washington Capitals. Firings in 2002 and 2008 with two teams. Missing the playoffs four times, including last season with the Leafs.

High, lows and everywhere in between.

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And there's no question where this season fits in.

"We don't sleep at night because it's not working," Hunter said yesterday as the Leafs were preparing to leave for their game tonight in Tampa Bay. "It doesn't matter if it's frustrating or not. Whatever's going on, we're not winning and it's not good enough."

A 16-year veteran of the league and a long-time Calgary Flames forward, Hunter stepped off the ice after the 1996-97 season and joined Wilson as an assistant coach with the Capitals a few months later. Together, the pair put together a sterling record before landing in Toronto, one with far more wins than losses (398-287-110) and seasons in the playoffs than out (7-3).

Based on that reputation and coming off four consecutive seasons with 99 points or better with the San Jose Sharks, Wilson and his staff were seen as a big part of the solution for the Leafs when they arrived prior to last season.

Just 104 games into their tenure in Toronto, however, many fans and media are putting them on the hot seat, expecting much more from this group than the team's 4-11-7 record.

General manager Brian Burke, meanwhile, has given his coaches several votes of confidence in the press.

Despite their lack of success, Hunter said the Leafs' coaching staff has not wavered from its message, changed the team's overall strategy or deviated from what worked while with the Sharks.

It's a game plan, he added, that will work if given more time.

"It took us five years to get to the point we got to in San Jose, with the success we had," Hunter said. "We developed a lot of young players and that takes time. You don't become the second-place team in the NHL overnight. The same thing's going to happen here - it's not going to happen overnight.

"You're not going to use the same systems everywhere you go because the personnel's different, but the philosophy's the same: aggressive hockey, aggressive fore-checking, puck possession and in-your-face hockey."

Hunter pointed to some of the Leafs' successes this season, including Toronto leading the NHL in shots on goal - a clear sign that the possession part of Wilson's mantra is working. What hasn't worked, however, is converting those shots into goals, as the Leafs are tied for the second-worst shooting percentage (7.3 per cent) in the NHL, with 56 goals on 764 shots.

And while Toronto's defensive play and penalty killing - two hallmarks of a well-coached team - have also been lacking, what an NHL coaching staff is rarely required to do is instruct its players on where to shoot the puck.

"Our problem has been our lack of ability to finish the opportunities that we create," Wilson said yesterday, referencing the 61 shots his team generated in a 4-3 overtime loss to the New York Islanders on Monday. "I think a lot of teams leave playing against us going 'Wow, we were stuck in our end for a lot of the game.' We've got to just stick with it and we'll score. I know we will."

The players, meanwhile, don't always sound so sure.

"It's not like I'm not trying," said winger Jason Blake, who leads the Leafs with 73 shots - nearly 10 per cent of the team total - and has just two goals. "The goals are just not going in."

Hunter is understandably reluctant to throw his current crew under the bus, to compare the rebuilding Leafs of today with Sharks teams that had a handful of 25-goal threats every season - including stars such as Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau. What he will say is that the entire coaching staff expects the Leafs to improve over time - or face the consequences that more losing will surely bring.

"This team has to get a lot better," Hunter said. "When the team gets to the point that it's a lot better and we're not executing, then maybe it's the coach's fault. But we've got a long way to go before it's the coach's fault around here."

Game Sheet

Notes The Toronto Maple Leafs placed centre John Mitchell (knee) and goaltender Vesa Toskala (groin) on injured reserve yesterday, calling up Christian Hanson and Joey MacDonald to fill in on the team's two-game trip to Florida. Head coach Ron Wilson said Mitchell's injury, suffered in a 4-3 loss to the New York Islanders on Monday, will keep him out up to six weeks. Toskala's strain is not considered serious. … The 6-foot-4, 230-pound Hanson has been one of the pleasant surprises for the Leafs' minor-league club this year. He leads the Toronto Marlies with eight goals and 18 points in 18 games. A centre for Notre Dame in college, Hanson has played right wing since turning pro late last season. … Toronto has put little-used pugilist Jay Rosehill on waivers with the intention of sending him to the Marlies. ... Leafs netminder Jonas Gustavsson is expected to start against the Lightning's Antero Niittymaki, who stoned the Leafs in the teams' last meeting. ... The Lightning are staging tailgate parties before and after the game tonight, offering food, beer and a concert by Canadian rock outfit Danko Jones, all for the low price of $25 (U.S.). No word on when the Leafs will have a similar offering at the Air Canada Centre.

Next Wednesday night, at the Tampa Bay Lightning, 7 p.m. EST

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