SPORTS

Leafs coach Wilson shrugs off pressure to succeed

09/16/2011 03:29 EDT | Updated 11/16/2011 05:12 EST

Toronto Maple Leafs coach Ron Wilson is talking playoffs in September again.

Maybe for the last time, if Toronto's new acquisitions and returning core group of Luke Schenn (newly signed), Dion Phaneuf, Phil Kessel and James Reimer don't meet the most optimistic of expectations.

"I'm cutting through all the B.S. here and getting right down to the NHL players," Wilson said, as Leafs players took physicals to begin training camp on Friday. "I'm not worried with where we're going to be in two or three years, my primary responsibility is making the playoffs this year and getting off to a good start."

Wilson said he hasn't asked for a contract extension, as he enters the season as a so-called "lame duck" in the final stanza of his four-year deal.

The speculation is nothing new for the 56-year-old veteran of 1,337 regular-season games as an NHL coach.

"I don't know how many times I've been asked when I think I'm getting fired when I have two or three years left on my contract, so what's the difference?"

The Maple Leafs should be improved after acquiring proven NHLers Tim Connolly and Matthew Lombardi up front, and John-Michael Liles and Cody Franson on the blue-line. Lombardi will have to be cleared to play after sitting out most of 2010-11 for Nashville after suffering a concussion.

Will it be good enough? Only Florida has a longer playoff drought than the Maple Leafs, who last entered the post-season in 2003-04.

"I'm not a statistician," Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf responded when asked how many points it will take for Toronto to finally break that barrier.

Phaneuf and forward Colby Armstrong both stressed that the new players are fitting into the team.

"The guys have really fit in well, we've skated for the last couple of weeks here on and off," said Phaneuf. "I really like the moves we made and I'm excited to get going."

Toronto's fortunes will also be affected in no small part by the progression of young players like Nazem Kadri, Keith Aulie and Tyler Bozak.

Wilson talked of new "wrinkles," but the Leafs aren't trying to re-invent the wheel. Getting the defence more involved in the rush and increasing puck-possession time are the goals, pretty much the same ones as 29 other NHL clubs.

"We think we've really got speed up front, we've improved our mobility on the back end, so that should equate into a little more offence," he said.

Consistency common word

Consistency was the most common word to crop up among the Leafs interviewed Friday.

Toronto got off to a 4-0-1 start last season but then swooned over the next six weeks, reaching a point of no return in the standings before rookie call-up Reimer helped the team to a strong second half, showing steady play in net.

"If you don't trust your goalie, the confidence sinks and that probably happened to us late in October and early in November," said Wilson. "We were never confident as a team with the goaltending we were getting at that time."

It should be pointed out here that one of those struggling goalies was the returning Jonas Gustavsson, putting a ton of pressure on Reimer after just 37 NHL games.

Toronto opted not to sign the type of veteran, borderline NHL goalie that many teams grab as insurance for the No. 3 spot on the depth chart.

Phaneuf said the team's stronger second half didn't happen free of pressure, taking pains to stress that the Leafs weren't officially out of the playoffs until the last two games.

"I like how we grew as a team the last half of the season, I think we learned a lot," Phaneuf said. "We're a young team, that's no secret to anyone, but that experience is going to help us.

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