The Leafs are earning the reputation of being one of the toughest teams to play against in the league.
Well, simply, coaching.
Paul Maurice was an alright coach the past couple years. Scotty Bowmen? No. But he has lead a team to the Cup finals, credit him for that.
However, it seems as if he was never able to motivate his guys enough, and play strong defence.
A big problem, I think, was Maurice's philosophy of playing man-to-man defence.
In the new NHL, with the calibre of players, it can be impossible to contain certain guys one-on-one.
The lack of establishing a capable defensive system (some type of zone defence), meant long nights and high GAA for whatever poor soul stood between the pipes on that night.
The team finished 25th in the league in '06/'07 and 27th in the league last year, in total goals against.
You won't win games if you can't keep the puck out of your net.
Wilson and his coaching staff have preached defence from day one. If you watch them play, positionally, they almost always seem to be in the right defensive spot. In addition, they're a much better team at collapsing on net this year, as opposed to last.
In fact, it almost seemed like the Leafs didn't collapse on their own net whatsoever in recent years.
I can think back on countless times when Toskala, and even Raycroft for that matter, were sprawled out, helpless, while an opposing player walks in and flips the puck top cheese or bangs a loose one in, from up close.
That hasn't been the case as much this year. Credit the coaching staff for being able to take control of a young group, who looked poised to end their playoff drought this season.
You can't mention the rebuild of this team without mentioning Cliff. (I could do a comparison between Cliff and J.F.J, but I swore to never mutter those initials again!)
The Silver Fox seems to have pulled another 180 with this franchise, for the second time in its history.
With the aid of his scouts, he was able to bring young, impressionable talent into the fray. Guys like Grabovski, Finger and Schenn will be future leaders of this club (also credit Wilson for bringing in Finger, if you think he isn’t a major reason he’s here, you’re nuts!).
And what about the job Fletch has done to add some depth to this roster. The ability for Wilson to go to different guys means healthy competition for roster spots and, in turn, constant effort from his players.
Heck, Ian White is playing shifts on forward! That goes to show you the depth on the blue line and the battle for the defensive spots alone.
The best part about having the extra depth is the ability to flip a Colaicavo or White to add other pieces to this team.
Being a fight-till-the-death, hard working team, is now status quo in Leaf Land. If you want to take shifts off or neglect your defensive role, you'll find yourself in the press box during games. Everyone is given an equal chance to show what they've got and in the end, the credit for that goes to Wilson and Flecther.
The road to Stanley is still a long one they must travel, but for the first time in a while there is a glimmer of hope. The changes in Leaf Land today, will pay dividends in the future.