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Leafs' late-season about-face arouses (mild) curiosity

It does not make me an acolyte of Brian Burke or Ron Wilson to believe the Toronto Maple Leafs' desperate bid to make the playoffs is something more than a tease. Nor does it make me a fan because, to be brutally honest, I couldn't care less whether the Leafs win or lose.

What it does make me - and, oh, how this singes - is a bit of an optimist. But it's not the product as much as the process that is worthy of contemplation.

Back in the first week of December, I, um, well, you know, kind of called for the firing of Wilson as head coach. (I cited a lack of a "sense of direction and noticeable improvement in the performance of players who might actually amount to something in the next two or three years.")

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The Leafs had been shut out six times in 16 games and they were still the Lost Boys on defence: François Beauchemin, The Player Formerly Known as Dion Phaneuf and Mike Komisarek. Phil Kessel looked as glum as Jason Blake. And the goaltending … aye-yi-yi.

And where are the Leafs now, going into Tuesday's game against the Washington Capitals, the 15th consecutive Biggest Game of The Year?

Burke, the Leafs' general manager, has pretty much tossed out most of the remaining riff-raff. Can't do much about Komisarek's contract, but in moving out Beauchemin and Tomas Kaberle, Burke opened the door for Keith Aulie, among others.

Aulie is a work in progress, but I already like the fact that he can use his wingspan to tie up players without drawing a penalty.

Phaneuf, for whatever reason, has hit his stride. I don't know how he is in the dressing room as a leader - and neither do you - but there is a flash of offensive awareness that is, really, all anybody has ever asked out of him in addition to being strong in his own end. The other stuff? Meh - I still think Luke Schenn is more of a captain, but perhaps Phaneuf's captaincy can be the comfortably benign type that allows room for others.

The Leafs are shy of skill at the forward position, but they could have three 30-goal scorers for the first time since the mid '90s. Kessel is one of them, and while he seems to have been mostly treading water this season, he's still pretty much the personification of a one-way, streaky player, which, come to think of it, is what everybody expected he would be.

Nikolai Kulemin and Mikhail Grabovski have continued upward career trends under Wilson this season. You might be comfortable in saying this is as good as it gets with them. I'm not. There has been mostly an improvement in core players, or at least the staunching of any regression. Mostly, we have seen James Reimer.

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With the Leafs expected to be $15-million or thereabouts under the salary cap after dealing with Reimer and whoever else needs dealing with contractually, Burke has wiggle room even with the absence of that great pool of forwards that was supposed to materialize when his peers came down with salary-cap fear. He can put something together to address the Leafs' needs. For the first time, you get the sense that one player - that one certain player - might actually make the difference between ninth or sixth place. That's the next step. Trade for that player or trade up to draft him.

At any rate, this isn't another group of Dead End Kids playing for next year's Marlies contracts. Wilson has one year left on his contract, and at this stage it would be surprising if he isn't given an extension, albeit hopefully with the caveat that he brings in somebody who can clean up his club's special teams.

I don't know if Wilson merits two or three more years, but I do know that I'm back to not getting worked up one way or another. Burke probably got my attention again when he swallowed hard and traded away the mistake that was Kris Versteeg, because it takes big stones for a GM to essentially say: "Wow, did I ever screw up that one." So now I'm more focused on the players and the process and, yes, a little intrigued. In a detached sort of way, you know?

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