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Transitioning From Competitors To Winners

Mike Ulmer checks in with a blog before Saturday's game.

Friday, 03.26.2010 / 4:30 PM ET / Mike Ulmer's Blog
By Mike Ulmer  - Mapleleafs.com commentator
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Transitioning From Competitors To Winners
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On trade deadline day in 2008, when no-movement clauses kept five players in Toronto against the club’s wishes, Cliff Fletcher was asked about the team.

He did not try to hide his disgust.

The Leafs, he said, had lost until winning no longer mattered. Only then did they start winning.

The Leafs went 16-10 in February and March of that year. Safe to say we can label that good finish illusionary.

The Maple Leafs have won 12 of 18 games over February and March.

I think you know where I am going here.

This is not to scotch the significant progress the club has made. I look at the building blocks and see a club that can and will compete.

The team right now is immensely better than the one that started the season.

But here is the deal. It is tough to purge a losing outfit and make it competitive. But it’s just as challenging to take a competitive team and make it a winner. That’s the job next season and here are some of the potential impediments obscured by the bright light of a fine finish.

1. Everybody won’t be just happy to be here. Tyler Bozak, Christian Hanson, and Viktor Stalberg were first-year Leafs. Free agents Francois Beauchemin, Mike Komisarek and Jonas Gustavsson chose to sign here and naturally pined to establish themselves. Next year, all those players figure to begin the season with the Leafs. There is a subtle change of mindset there and that can cause the prolonged stretches of poor play that plagued sophomores Luke Schenn, Nikolai Kulemin and Mikhail Grabovski.

2. You don’t surprise anyone after you’ve beaten them a couple of times.

3. The pool of unrestricted free agents GM Brian Burke mined to rebuild his defence is horribly shallow this time around after Patrick Marleau and Ilya Kovalchuk. There are some lower case names, Raffi Torres comes to mind, but there doesn’t seem to be anyone whose presence would dramatically enhance the Toronto lineup.

4. Nor does there seem to any Tyler Bozaks available in the college free agent market. That makes the rebuild harder.

5. Expectations will be dramatically different come next season. Inconsistent performances attributed to youth won’t be glossed over.

6. Assuming Tomas Kaberle is dealt this summer, someone else will have to step up and take his place in the rumor mills. Whoever that player is will not find it pleasant.

7. A minor scheduling wrinkle will see the red-hot Jonas Gustavsson return to the net Saturday against New York. There had been a platoon between Gustavsson and J.S. Giguere but next year is the final year of Giguere’s deal and it will be time to move Gustavsson into the number one job. Having acclimatized himself and rectified his health problems, Gustavsson will be a better goalie but ascension in goal can be jarring for both players as well as the team.

8. Dion Phaneuf seems destined to be the Leafs’ new captain. Phaneuf’s leadership style is going to be direct and, if he deems it necessary, maybe even confrontational. There is no guarantee the team will react well to being in harness although I’m not going to tell him any different.

9. Fan expectations, especially if Burke swings a summertime deal, will be suffocating, in a good way, of course.

10. Aside from Mike Komisarek’s season ending shoulder injury, Mike Van Ryn’s absence due to knee problems and Grabovski’s 23 games lost to a wrist injury, the Leafs have been left largely unscathed by the injury bug. There is no guarantee that will continue into next year.

Author: Mike Ulmer | Mapleleafs.com

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