TORONTO - Ron 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.
"We're probably two or three pieces from being a true contender," Wilson said Monday. "I'm talking a contender, not for the playoffs, I'm talking a contender for the Stanley Cup. And it may come from within, you don't know.
"There were guys that ended up playing for us this year I had no idea could even play in the NHL."
The mood was remarkably upbeat as the Maple Leafs returned to Air Canada Centre to clean out their lockers and conduct exit interviews.
Even though it's the sixth straight year they've gathered while other NHL teams were busy preparing for the playoffs, there was optimism in the air after an 18-9-6 run to end the season.
"The first couple years for me I think everyone was saying `Next year should be better, next year should be better,' but I think it was more hoping that it would be better," said defenceman Luke Schenn. "Now I think there's kind of a bit of belief that we are on the right track. ... It seems like there's a plan in place now.
"Things should be looking up around here."
Wilson did issue some words of caution. Two of the pieces he'd like to see added are a No. 1 centre and a defenceman to quarterback the power play—not exactly easy commodities for GM Brian Burke to attain over the summer.
On top of that, he's envisioning forwards Mikhail Grabovski, Nikolai Kulemin and Clarke MacArthur to build on the career years they enjoyed this season.
"That's always a dangerous assumption to make, but you have to expect guys to play the (same) way that they did at the end," said Wilson. "That's what I expect anyway."
There is some precedent for a team to emerge from the wilderness and quickly become a contender in the post-lockout NHL. Pittsburgh and Chicago each won the Stanley Cup two years after missing the playoffs, albeit with plenty of top draft picks on their rosters.
Burke has elected to build the Leafs a different way and will have plenty of salary cap flexibility to work with over the summer.
With J.S. Giguere's US$6-million annual contract coming off the books, the Leafs have roughly $37 million committed to 13 players next season. Schenn, goaltender James Reimer and forwards Clarke MacArthur and Tyler Bozak are among the team's restricted free agents.
MacArthur had career bests of 21 goals and 62 points this season, but isn't anticipating agent Don Meehan engaging in a fierce negotiation with Burke.
"I feel like sometimes it's better to be happy than to be greedy," said MacArthur. "I think in a lot of people's cases they'll take more money other places and the fun and love of the game goes away. Your career doesn't go the direction you want it to go.
"It would be a tough place to leave here. I don't think you can find a better hockey place."
Reimer was a major reason behind the strong finish to the season. He began training camp last September fighting for the starting role with the AHL's Toronto Marlies and will come into next season as the No. 1 goalie in the organization.
A decision will need to be made about his backup. Burke could bring Giguere back at a lower price, sign a free agent or go with Jonas Gustavsson, who battled health issues and indifferent play this season.
There promises to be little room for error as the team looks to prove the strong finish to this season was no fluke.
"The biggest thing for our group is how much we grew as a team after the all-star break," said captain Dion Phaneuf. "Everyone was saying—you read and you see on TV—that it's just another late push, but it was more than a push.
"Night in, night out we were playing in big games that were playoff-like and for next year it's really going to help us."
They did it with the NHL's second-youngest lineup. There are more youngsters in the pipeline and prospects Joe Colborne, Matt Frattin and Jake Gardiner will all arrive at training camp looking to make the jump to the NHL.
Players point to theyouth movement as one of the main thing that separates this group from others that have disappointed in the past.
"This is probably the youngest we've been in God knows how long," said checking line forward Tim Brent, an unrestricted free agent who hopes to return. "The youth, the energy, the little taste that we got this last little run about how great the city could be if playoff time happened next year is enough I think to make sure guys are ready to go from the start of the season next year."
No one in the organization wants to see players cleaning out their lockers in April 2012.
"We're going to learn from the good this year and we're going to learn from the bad," said Phaneuf. "We had a lot of both."