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Are Wilson's barbs getting to his players? Add to ...

To call it a new story would be misleading, so I won't. But it's definitely a hot topic of conversation here in Toronto, even with only five games left and even though those may be Tomas Kaberle's last five with the Leafs.

After Tuesday night's 3-2 loss to the Thrashers, Ron Wilson was in a bit of a foul mood and tossed a few barbs at Kaberle (and Francois Beauchemin), leading to reports today of dissent in the dressing room. (Not that that's anything new on this or any of Wilson's previous stops).

Here are Wilson's comments from Tuesday:

"We're in a nothing-nothing game and two veteran defensemen get caught pinching. They're poor reads and that's why we got down 2-0," he said. "We talk about how solid our defence is and how well we've been playing and we still got some guys who are minus-16 or whatever they are. They're supposed to be the guys who get the job done defensively and they haven't improved their plus-minus over the last month when just about everybody else has."

And it's pretty clear who Wilson's referring to in Kaberle (minus-16) and Beauchemin (minus-15).

I'll get to Beauchemin a little later, but defensively, Kaberle's had a really poor year -- and Wilson's has his eye on his plus-minus all year. Here he was back in January, talking to AM640's Jonas Siegel:

"He's a minus 10 or 11 (this season)," Wilson said before a game in Nashville. "That's to me, not acceptable. Points don't matter if the other team's scoring all the time when you're on the ice. He's got to get the job done in our own end a little bit better and he'll play more minutes."

That hasn't happened -- and if anything, Kaberle's regressed as the team has begun to play better. He's a minus-8 in the past two months and has been on the ice for 63 5-on-5 goals against this season -- dead last on the Leafs. Wilson rarely uses him against team's top lines (as he does with Beauchemin), either, and his offence has dried up since Dion Phaneuf arrived.

So, in my mind, the criticism's justified. It does, however, result in a bit of a to-do in the press -- and Kaberle, who rarely appears to talk to the media (especially on game days), was dutifully on hand to address reports he wasn't happy playing under Wilson.

"I'm here over 10 years in the league and I've never (had an) issue with the coach and I hopefully never will," he told a larger than normal gathering today. "I would like to know who said that (I am unhappy) obviously. But it's fun sometimes to read stuff like that in the papers. If that is the case, I would probably ask for a trade at the deadline, right?

"I didn't ask for a trade," Kaberle continued. "If something came up -- I was always honest with Brian Burke -- if something really good would come up for the team to make it better, then it's a good fit for both sides, right? But I never changed my story, I always want to stay here."

He was also asked if Wilson's the most difficult coach he's played under in his 11-year career.

"It's tough to say, every coach is different," Kaberle said. "Everybody's got different things to do. Obviously, it's not easy when you're in second-last place. It's not easy to swallow. ... I'm just happy lately we've been winning, finding ways to win hockey games.

"There's a lot of things that have been said (in the media) over the 11 years I was here. Obviously, a lot of things are going to be said even afterwards. It bothers me a little bit, but you know, what can I do with that?"

So, publicly, everything's A-Okay with Wilson. Privately, however, Kaberle wouldn't be the first Leafs player to express his unhappiness with the acerbic coach -- and many in that boat are now ex-Leafs.

Wilson said he didn't have any issues with Kaberle.

"I think our relationship's fine," Wilson said. "I think Tomas even, I've been told, addressed that today. Never had any issues with Tomas.

"I'm here to try and make guys better, so you have to be a boss. There's a way you kind of turn it on and turn it off, but in your casual conversations, you're not a friend, you're friendly. I don't know of a coach who gets invited out to dinner or invites players out to dinner in any sport. So you're not really the players' friend but you try and be as friendly and accommodating as possible. But you still have tough decisions you have to make and there's lots of situations where you have to come down hard on people if they're not getting the job done within the team structure."

Sometimes publicly?

"Yeah. Yeah."

If that's the strategy, however, it hasn't been working with everyone.

Look at Lee Stempniak, before and after his time under Wilson in Toronto. Look at how Patrick Marleau has blossomed since Wilson was canned in San Jose. And look at the trade requests made this season from some (Jamal Mayers, Garnet Exelby) and thinly veiled discontent from others (Vesa Toskala) who were thrown under the bus.

It's to the point in the Leafs dressing room where, for many players, this "story" is a non-story -- just another day under a coach who can be difficult to deal with. Veterans Wayne Primeau and Jamie Lundmark, for example, made light of the media interest in Kaberle today by pretending to be reporters themselves, holding the ends of broken hockey sticks like microphones in their teammate's face and giggling through the proceedings.

As for Beauchemin, he seems to be one of the ones able to slough off Wilson's criticisms easier than others. He even offered his own criticisms of using plus-minus to evaluate his play.

"I mean, you know what, the minuses are going to be there when you play a lot of minutes and most of them happened at the beginning at the year," Beauchemin said. "I'm playing 25, 30 minutes against the other team's top line and we weren't scoring a lot of goals, 5-on-5 especially. Sometimes it's good, sometimes it's bad, sometimes it doesn't even matter because you'll jump on the ice, you'll get scored against or for and you've got to take some and give some away.

"Like I said, when you play against the other team's top line, it's tough -- your goal is not to score goals, it's to prevent them from scoring. Sometimes it will happen. Especially in Anaheim, Scott Niedermayer and myself, we were playing with a checking line (Pahlsson-Moen-Niedermayer) against the other team's top line so we weren't scoring many goals... overall, when you play a lot of minutes (being a minus) is going to happen."

Sure enough, the last 16 games with the team playing pretty well, Beauchemin's been an even player while still skating in about 26 minutes a night. Kaberle, meanwhile, is down around 20, and while he continues to say the right things about wanting to stay, his play could dictate otherwise.

Follow on Twitter: @mirtle

 

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