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(FRED THORNHILL)
(FRED THORNHILL)

Burke, Leafs leap to Wilson's defence Add to ...

The first day after the NHL's all-star break quickly became yet another opportunity for the Toronto Maple Leafs to defend coach Ron Wilson, and it was general manager Brian Burke leading the way on Monday.

The latest commotion came as a result of a poll released over the weekend in which more NHL players picked the caustic Leafs coach as the one they would least like to play for among all league bench bosses.

More than 300 current NHL players responded to the poll, the result of a joint effort by Hockey Night in Canada and the NHL Players' Association, and the Leafs came up short in more than one category.

"He's got 600 wins [in the NHL]and a silver medal [at the Olympics] plus a World Cup," Burke said of Wilson. "You think anybody in management cares about a poll like this?"

In addition to their dislike for Wilson, 5 per cent of NHL players surveyed picked the Leafs as the franchise they would least like to play for, putting Toronto behind only the New York Islanders, Edmonton Oilers, Buffalo Sabres and Atlanta Thrashers.

"That explains why so many top rookie free agents choose Toronto," Burke said sarcastically. "And why six veteran free agents have chosen the Leafs in the last two years. It's the capital city of hockey in the world. I am proud to live here."

Wilson missed Monday's practice to be in Hershey, Pa., to attend an American Hockey League Hall of Fame induction ceremony for his late father, Larry. In his absence, his players joined Burke in defending their coach as someone they were happy to play for.

"If you don't know Ron, you can kind of take him the wrong way," defenceman Luke Schenn said. "A lot of times, people see him [in the media]after we don't play great, don't play up to our ability, and he's got to face some tough questions."

"I have nothing but good things to say about the way that he coaches," Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf said. "Right now we're at where we're at because of us as players, not our coaching staff. The coaches don't put the skates on - we do."

Leafs assistant coach Tim Hunter added that all of the coaches that were picked as "least liked" have had success in the past, pointing to New York Rangers coach John Tortorella and Dallas Stars coach Marc Crawford as two who have won the Stanley Cup yet finished second and third in voting behind Wilson.

"Last I checked, coaching is not a popularity contest," Hunter said. "It's about getting the job done and having your players perform for you and that happens here."

Given Wilson's track record in Toronto, many pundits around the league disagree on that front. The Leafs coach has been under fire for much of his tenure in the city precisely because of how his team has performed since his hiring in the summer of 2008.

The Leafs finished 24th in his first season and 29th last year, are currently sitting 26th in the 30-team NHL and have little hope of making the postseason - for a sixth consecutive season.

With one year remaining on Wilson's contract beyond this season, it's believed the Leafs' record over the final 33 games of 2010-11 will heavily influence Burke's decision on bringing him back next year.

Several Leafs suggested Monday that Wilson's reputation has come in part as a result of being the face of struggling franchise the past 2½ seasons.

"Does he hate losing? Yeah. Who doesn't hate losing?" Schenn said. "Obviously, people handle it different ways.

"He's a great coach to play for when you're winning. People see the interviews when he's unhappy and some things come out that people disagree with, but that's all part of it and we're used to it and we see where he's coming from at times.

"I think he's had a great run of success, so you can't argue that."

 

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