Since Southern Ontario is home to the most knee-jerk, crazed hockey fans, only the Toronto Maple Leafs' general manager was surprised when his team's latest pratfall resulted in cries from the cognoscenti that the coach should be fired. Then again, Brian Burke has only been here for a little less than two years.
"Did Ron Wilson play poorly last night?" Burke said Sunday when he was cornered at a sports management conference he helped organize. "I'm perplexed by this and have been since I've been here. You watch the game film and show me one thing Ronnie did wrong."
Well, if a fellow wanted to turn Burke's scowl into a snarl, he could have said Wilson's biggest mistake was to keep sending the Phil Kessel-Tyler Bozak-Kris Versteeg line over the boards against the Buffalo Sabres. Judging by the coach's reaction after the Leafs blew a 2-0 lead and lost 3-2 in a shootout, the trio may not survive yet another impotent showing when the Leafs head south for back-to-back games starting Tuesday against the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Florida Panthers.
The Leafs' so-called No. 1 line has a mere 10 even-strength points in 13 games compared to 24 from the No. 2 line of centre Mikhail Grabovski and wingers Nikolai Kulemin and Clarke MacArthur. Kessel has not scored a goal in five games and Versteeg has just two so far this season while Bozak has a mere five points, the same as Versteeg.
Both Burke and Wilson said all three players have the ability to be top-line players. What they are lacking, the coach said, is the work ethic.
"You don't get offence because they're basically not working hard enough defensively," Wilson said.
What that means is all three of them are not coming back far enough in their own end to help the defence get control of the puck and get it moving the other way. When the Leafs hit the ice flying for the first six games of the season, the most noticeable difference from last season's sad-sack team was the transition game.
The Leafs could get the puck out of their end and create a scoring chance in the blink of an eye, it seemed. Now, with the team sliding to a 5-5-3 record, the Bozak line is no longer skating like it should. Too often, the players are floating between centre and the opposition blueline, looking for home-run passes.
"Yeah, exactly," Wilson said. "When they stop skating and making themselves available, you don't have a transition game. They have got to work to get open. They have to come back [to the Leafs zone]and not expect the defence to make 120-foot passes to them."
Burke made it clear he is also deaf to shouts from the fans to bring 20-year-old centre Nazem Kadri up from the Toronto Marlies farm team. Or to rush out and blow his $4-million (all currency U.S.) in salary-cap room on a quick fix.
And why should he? All that is available at this point in the season are players with either unhealthy contracts or suspect medical histories. If the Leafs were a team that is one or even two players away from a Stanley Cup, it might be worth the risk. But they are not, so it makes far more sense to wait until much closer to the trade deadline on Feb. 28 when that $4-million in cap space is worth a lot more than it is today and somebody might be willing to dump a player who is actually worth his paycheque.
"There is no panic here," Burke said. "We have players who aren't performing on a proper level on a nightly basis. That has to change."
If it doesn't, one thing that will not change first is the coach.