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Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Ron Wilson reacts as he watches his team trail 4-0 to Carolina Hurricanes towards the end of the second period NHL action in Toronto on Tuesday, March 2, 2010. (CHRIS YOUNG/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Ron Wilson reacts as he watches his team trail 4-0 to Carolina Hurricanes towards the end of the second period NHL action in Toronto on Tuesday, March 2, 2010. (CHRIS YOUNG/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Wilson gives the eulogy Add to ...

After sixth months of serving up so many postgame sermons on why his team lost, night after night, Toronto Maple Leafs coach Ron Wilson delivered the final eulogy on the 2009-10 season yesterday at the Air Canada Centre here.

In it, he subtly assessed some blame for the year gone wrong, pointing a finger at the (not-so) dearly departed eight players general manager Brian Burke dealt away in the second half.

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"What a season like this does is confirm your beliefs about certain individuals, certain ways to play, certain ways to prepare," Wilson said when asked what he had learned from a year gone wrong.

"I think we've made enough changes that I personally feel comfortable with the room we have, with the leadership that we'll have going forward, with the professionalism that's exhibited every day in practice on and off the ice."

The implication there is that some of those elements had been lacking, that the players no longer with the Leafs - several of whom couldn't wait to get out of Toronto - had in some ways weighed down Wilson's second season with the team.

And while at least one of those traded has quietly told friends around the league that the Leafs coach had "lost the room," it's now crystal clear Burke came down on the side of Wilson, shuttling out nearly 40 per cent of his roster in a span of five weeks in a bid to clear out the malcontents.

Wilson said yesterday his main regret was not going with more of a youth movement from the start.

"If I could do anything over again, I would have gone with all the young guys I thought had made our team at training camp, had outplayed a lot of veterans," Wilson said. "But we couldn't do that [because of contract obligations] Next year, I don't think we're going to be facing that."

The group he will have, barring more drastic retooling in the off-season, will have a few relatively new veterans to go with rookies and sophomores trying to make an impact - players who appeared willing to work for their stern coach in the latter half of the season.

"For me it was a good change [after playing under Randy Carlyle in Anaheim]" Leafs netminder Jean-Sébastien Giguère said of Wilson. "You can't be around this league for so long, having so many wins, without being a good coach. We know that he's a good coach. I don't think we have any doubt in this dressing room and we'll stand by him for sure."

Whether the organization does the same, long term, remains to be seen.

Next season will be Wilson's 17th in the NHL and the third year of a lucrative four-year contract in Toronto that makes him one of the highest paid coaches in the league. His record to this point isn't pretty - 64-73-27 - and this season's 29th-place finish was his worst as a head coach.

Longevity has not been a staple of coaches in Toronto, either. Should Wilson survive another full season, he'll rank ninth in games coached behind the Leafs bench.

If he lasts until the end of his contract - something that will be in doubt if his team gets off to another slow start next season - he'll move to fifth, establishing a long-lasting legacy (positive or negative) as a Leafs coach.

Needless to say, Wilson has a lot riding on a turnaround.

Questioned yesterday as to why he felt he was the right man to lead this team given the results to date, he pointed to the Leafs' 13-10-3 record since Burke added Giguère and defenceman Dion Phaneuf as reason enough.

"You need to have talent to make the playoffs and I think with this group, I've made a big difference in the last two months of the year," Wilson said. "I wanted from the get-go to have a young team and to develop. I don't have any bad habits right now that I have to eradicate from the whole group."

It's Wilson's turn, in other words, to deliver.

Follow on Twitter: @mirtle

 

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