TORONTO - Ron Wilson wishes he could have put the kids in sooner.
One regret the Toronto Maple Leafs coach has about the past season is starting the year with veteran players who hadn't necessarily earned their spots in the lineup. Toronto got off to an 0-7-1 start and never recovered, eventually finishing 29th in the league.
"If I could do anything over again, I would have gone with all the young guys I thought had made our team at training camp (and) had outplayed a lot of veterans," Wilson said Monday.
With big salaries tied up in the one-way contracts of Jason Blake, Matt Stajan and Vesa Toskala, the coach had little choice but to play them. All three were eventually shipped out of town in trades, opening the door for some of the younger players who helped the team to a 9-3-1 stretch in March.
Toskala's performance was particularly damaging. He entered the year as the No. 1 goaltender and was ominously pulled in the second game after allowing three goals to Washington in just 20 minutes. It didn't get much better after that.
"Yeah, I did lose a little bit of confidence in Vesa at the beginning and he probably felt it," said Wilson. "He probably felt it from his teammates because he was continuing where he left off."
The Leaf players made one final visit to Air Canada Centre on Monday morning to conduct exit interviews and clean out their lockers. It's the fifth straight season the team has failed to qualify for the playoffs - and the fifth in a row where it's touting a bright future.
The 2009-10 campaign was essentially doomed in the opening two weeks. Unlike years past, the team was never part of the playoff race in the Eastern Conference after digging an early hole.
"We all tried to do a little too much and it didn't work out," said defenceman Francois Beauchemin, one of GM Brian Burke's off-season acquisitions. "That's one thing we learned. It won't happen again."
There has been plenty of turnover on the Leafs roster in recent years and Wilson expects to see more new faces at training camp in September. One of those is first-round draft pick Nazem Kadri, whom Wilson expects will be with the NHL team from the start next season.
Burke has decisions to make on at least eight impending free agents, including goaltender Jonas Gustavsson and forward Nikolai Kulemin - both restricted free agents who will be looking for a raise.
The veteran GM will also have to decide whether or not to trade defenceman Tomas Kaberle. Under the terms of his contract, Kaberle's no-trade clause will disappear for a period over the summer so the longest-serving Leaf is heading into the off-season knowing he might not be back.
"I'm going to deal with whatever comes in the summer," said Kaberle. "I'll do my best to get ready in the best shape I could possibly (be in) and be ready for the season. If it's going to be here, great. If not, I'm going to have to move on."
Wilson believes the team can improve if all of the returning players show a commitment to their off-season workout plans. At the top of the list is winger Phil Kessel, who admits he never reached 100 per cent fitness this season after spending last summer recovering from shoulder surgery.
The 22-year-old still managed to lead the team with 30 goals in 70 games. The Leafs will be looking for even more next season - especially with a top draft pick potentially playing for division-rival Boston as part of the compensation for Kessel.
"He's got to start working out and get himself in the best shape he's ever been in his life, be totally committed to it," said Wilson. "So that he doesn't suffer some of these injuries ... He's got a summer where he can make himself stronger, get himself fitter, so when the season starts he's in the best shape of his life and he can maximize his God-given abilities."
Burke got an early start on his rebuilding for next season with the Jan. 31 trades that brought in goaltender J.S. Giguere and defenceman Dion Phaneuf, who is considered a front-runner to become the team's first captain since Mats Sundin.
Those moves allowed youngsters like Tyler Bozak, Viktor Stalberg, Carl Gunnarson and Christian Hanson to assume a permanent spot in the lineup. From that point on, the team played its best hockey of the season.
"I really like what I've seen the last 20 games," said Giguere. "We wanted to be a team that would play at a playoff pace and we got 25 points in the last 20 games. If you do that four times in a season, it gives you 100 points - it's plenty to make the playoffs."
Even though the Leafs have just completed their worst season since 1997-98, there will likely be some hope in the fall the team is ready to make a run at the playoffs.
They hope to have planted the seeds with some good play down the stretch.
"We think that a lot of our young guys gathered enough experience to kind of have a feel for (what it takes to win), especially the last two or three weeks where every team ... was playing with desperation," said Wilson. "We want to be in the same position as those teams next year. But only time will tell."