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Leafs' optimism mingles with sense of urgency

Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Ron Wilson. (AP File Photo/Paul Beaty)

Paul Beaty/AP

At first glance, the scene involved more than a little déjà vu.

Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke, standing in front of a corporate backdrop, surrounded by reporters and cameras and offering his view of why his team is better this time around.

"We think we made some changes that have made our team dramatically better," Burke said. "We think those things will put us in the position where we want to be, which is in competition for a playoff spot."

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A lot of what was said on Tuesday at the Leafs' annual charity golf tournament sounded an awful lot like many of Burke's speeches the past 2 1/2 years in the job.

What was intriguing is what's different.

For one, head coach Ron Wilson goes into the season without any cushion, as he's in the final year of his contract and almost certainly won't be back should the Leafs miss the playoffs for a seventh consecutive season.

And Burke doesn't apologize for putting him in that lame duck role.

"If anyone here doubts my loyalty to Ron Wilson, based on the number of times that guys in this group [of media]have screamed at me to fire him, I can safely say I've done the right thing by Ron Wilson," Burke said.

"I do think he's the right coach for this group. If we have the start we want, we'll address his contractual situation right away. But I didn't feel I had to extend him to show my loyalty to him. I think I've shown that time and again."

Starts, however, have been a well documented problem for the Leafs. This is a team that has been in 11th, 14th and 13th place in the Eastern Conference on Dec. 31 in Wilson's three seasons behind the bench, essentially out of the playoff picture with more than half the campaign left to play.

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That won't be acceptable this time around. If there's another repeat – or bout of déjà vu – on that front, Wilson will likely get his walking papers in short order.

(Burke won't have to look far for a replacement, either, given new assistant coach Scott Gordon has NHL head coaching experience and could easily step into the role on an interim basis.)

The good news for Wilson is that this is the best cast he's had to work with thus far, with potentially three solid centres should Matt Lombardi – who was at the event and is getting closer to a return from a concussion – be able to play.

Burke insisted on Tuesday that the team now had improved depth up front and on defence, as well as solid goaltending with James Reimer signed for the next three years and Jonas Gustavsson set to rebound.

Even allowing that the Leafs have taken small steps forward, however, there's still a significant problem in that all of the playoff teams in the Eastern Conference last season are no worse for wear, with the seventh-seeded Buffalo Sabres and eighth-seeded New York Rangers making the biggest player additions.

The best-case scenario for Toronto is likely sneaking into the final playoff spot – something that will only be possible if Reimer plays well and that would be viewed as a considerable coup in these parts given how long the franchise has had these five-month-long, golf-outing-filled off-seasons.

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"We think there's a couple catchable teams," Burke said, adding that he still has cap space (roughly $3-million U.S.) after signing Luke Schenn to add another body if need be. "I'm not going to name them. No reason to start with bulletin board material before the season begins.

"We had the fourth-best record in the East from the all-star [break]on. It wasn't a short run. It wasn't a, 'Hey they're out of it so they played well,' run. It was a deep, long, hard run. And that's the group that's coming back, with the additions we made. We think we have reason to be optimistic."

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