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Leafs on verge of vying for Stanley Cup, Wilson says

Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Ron Wilson arrives for an outdoor in Toronto December 22, 2010. Wilson is thinking much bigger than simply making the playoffs. In fact, the coach of The Toronto Maple Leafs doesn't believe his team is very far away from challenging for a championship.


It wasn't yet Brian Burke's turn to speak, so Toronto Maple Leafs coach Ron Wilson stepped in with a bold proclamation of his own on Monday.

And it was a bit of a whopper.

"We're probably two or three pieces from being a true contender," Wilson said during his final media address of the season. "But I'm talking a contender, not for the playoffs, I'm talking contender for the Stanley Cup. And it may come from within. You don't know."

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While there may be a lot that's unknowable for the Leafs in terms of next season, however, this just isn't it, as - barring Sidney Crosby, Corey Perry and Shea Weber clones in the system - they're more than a little way from "contender" territory.

After all, going from a 74-point to an 85-point team is one thing; joining the 100-point crowd is entirely another, a type of challenge at least two years down the road for this team.

Moving toward that goal, meanwhile, will likely involve some outside help.

Faced with questions over what his team needs to do to take its next steps, Wilson did his best to play general manager on Monday, offering his own thoughts on possible additions this summer.

No. 1 would be "somebody who can move the puck on the point on our power play," a Tomas Kaberle replacement that can tee pucks up for captain Dion Phaneuf during a man advantage.

No. 2 is more depth at centre ice, although here Wilson was careful to couch his opinion by saying he was happy with the group he has now.

"That might be an area that we need to address," he said. "A No. 1 centre. If they're available. I'm comfortable with our centres right now, but if there's somebody who can add something to the top line and take all those minutes …"

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From there, Wilson launched into a spirited defence of sophomore centre Tyler Bozak's play, before turning his attention to his third defence pairing - which struggled almost all season - and backup goaltender Jonas Gustavsson.

Soon, he was defending his special teams record, which includes a penalty killing unit that finished among the worst three in the NHL for the third year in a row.

"It is what it is," Wilson said. "We're going to try and improve it. Simple."

What it all sounded like was a team that remains a work in progress, one in need of far more dramatic retooling by Burke - who will face similar questions in his own press conference on Tuesday - than simply adding a piece or two.

More than anything, the Leafs need time to continue to develop their youngsters, a process that could involve steps back for some and steps forward for others in 2011-12.

"I'm comfortable with this group more than any I've had in a long time because they're growing together, improving together, believing together," Wilson said. "Without any baggage to carry along. I really believe that's what helped us down the stretch as we got younger. A lot of our players, their belief system seemed to change.

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"This year, we piled up a bunch of experience at the end. And I think that's all it's going to take [to get to the next level]for next year."

Wilson's rosy view was for the most part shared by his players on Monday as they cleaned out their lockers and offered a few words before leaving for the off-season.

Phaneuf, however, made it clear the last thing he wanted was to be in the same situation next April, selling sunshine about the progress made in another no-playoffs campaign.

"You do not like sitting in this chair at this time of year," he said. "You'd rather be on a plane or practising in your own building getting ready for the playoffs.

"We're not happy with being out of the playoffs. We play to give ourselves a chance to win the Stanley Cup. … We're coming back next year to make the playoffs. You say that at the start of every year, but I think this year we learned a lot and it's only going to help us."

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Hockey Reporter

James joined The Globe as an editor and reporter in the sports department in 2005 and now covers the NHL and the Toronto Maple Leafs. More

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