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Leafs in unchartered waters

The Toronto Maple Leafs are on the cusp of history.

The Toronto Maple Leafs are on the cusp of history.

One more loss — or wins tonight by Montreal and Florida — and the Maple Leafs will be officially eliminated from the playoffs for the fourth season in a row. That’s the longest the franchise will have ever gone without a trip to the Stanley Cup playoffs since its inception as the Toronto Arenas in 1917.

The last time the Leafs came close to being this inept, the world was on the brink of economic disaster. Not that there’s any link between the Great Depression and the Leafs’ playoff drought — unless you’re a Leafs fan — but the last time the team missed the playoffs for three years in a row, it was 1927-29.

But what sets the 2008-09 version apart from the three teams that preceded it is a sense that this group overachieved. The last three, captained by Mats Sundin, were all expected to make the playoffs and failed.

This one — ripped of most of its high-end talent prior to the season and further diluted at the trade deadline — was expected to vie for last overall, but hung around the playoff race long enough to make a name for itself.

“The cornerstone of any franchise is the players’ work ethic,” said coach Ron Wilson. “If you can lay that down and make that a part of your culture, that goes a long way.”

Wilson will miss the playoffs for the first time since 2003, when he came in partway through the season as coach of the San Jose Sharks.

“I came with my eyes wide open,” said Wilson. “I knew it would be very difficult, if not close to impossible, to make the playoffs.”

Wilson said he’s pleased with the progress some of his young players made, naming Mikhail Grabovski, John Mitchell, Nikolai Kulemin, Luke Schenn and even throwing in Jiri Tlusty, who’s had a monster second half with the AHL Marlies.

“He’s become a dominant force in the American league,” said Wilson. “We needed him to do that in order to make this team and have a permanent place here.”

 
 
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