Whenever Toronto Maple Leafs’ general manager Brian Burke comes to the defence of coach Ron Wilson, he does it on the macro level: That Wilson is one of the most successful coaches in NHL history and he didn’t become dumb or incompetent overnight. Fair enough. A lot of competent coaches lose jobs and, in time, land new ones. It is the old hired-to-be-fired scenario. It doesn’t matter if you’re the second coming of Toe Blake, the way of the NHL world (every place this side of Nashville) is that the coach’s voice will eventually fall on deaf ears once he’s been in place too long. Coaches periodically need to be shifted from one location to the next so that a stale message delivered to one yawning group can sound fresh and new to the next.
How else to explain the fact that Ken Hitchcock has been periodically unemployed during a career in which he extracts 25 per cent more out of a team than anyone else who handles it before or after?
The Leafs should have grabbed Hitchcock before the St. Louis Blues did, when Hitchcock was looking for work earlier in the year, but didn’t, because a) Burke has no history with him; and b) Hitchcock’s smothering defensive style is at odds with the way Burke wants his teams to play. Still, St. Louis had a losing record when Hitchcock took over a month into the season. Now, they’re pushing the Detroit Red Wings for top spot in the Central - the best division in hockey - proof positive of the impact that a players’ collective buy-in to a coaching system can have on a team.
Who is St. Louis’s best player? Not an easy question to answer - and that’s a point to consider when you ponder how close Toronto is to respectability. The Blues are proof that you don’t need massive remakes at the trading deadline to succeed, or even minor tweaks. You don’t need marquee stars, featured in the NHL marketing campaigns, to win. You need a lot of competent David Backeses and Alex Pietrangeloes, all playing the sort of smart defensive hockey that St. Louis does in front of goaltenders Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott - and that Toronto doesn’t play in front of James Reimer or Jonas Gustavsson.
Let’s talk goaltending for a minute, something the Leafs wouldn’t or couldn’t improve at the NHL trading deadline. With only a handful of exceptions, the vast majority of NHL goaltenders break through in their middle to late 20s, or usually around the time when the team that drafted them in the first place throws up its collective hands in exasperation at the uneven pace of their development.
Two of this year’s most successful netminders, Elliott and Mike Smith (Phoenix Coyotes), were virtually given up for dead by their previous employers, (Ottawa/Colorado and Tampa respectively). Two years ago, the Dallas Stars took a chance on the injury-prone Kari Lehtonen, who was on the outs with the Atlanta Thrashers. The acquisition cost: Cheap (Ivan Vishnevsky and a fourth-round pick). If the Stars make the playoffs this year, it’ll be because Lehtonen got them there. Tim Thomas, Jimmy Howard, Niklas Backstrom, Antti Niemi, Craig Anderson, Miikka Kirprusoff and Pekka Rinne all qualify as late bloomers, players who came out of nowhere, cost little in terms of their acquisition prices and paid massive dividends for their respective teams.
For every Marc-Andre Fleury (Pittsburgh), Carey Price (Montreal) or Roberto Luongo (Vancouver) who were high draft choices, there is a Ryan Miller (fifth round, Buffalo), Henrik Lundqvist (seventh round, New York Rangers), or Jonathan Quick (fourth round, Los Angeles) that every team passed over, multiple times.
Drafting and developing goalies is not an exact science and Burke may even be right - that Reimer will eventually get his game back on the rails after suffering through the kind of sophomore slump that so many goalies have endured in the past. But for now, to staunch the bleeding with a playoff berth still within grasp, the Leafs needed help in the short term and didn’t get it.
In the meantime, Hitchcock has to the current favourite for the Jack Adams award, and if he wins, he will be the second coach in the past five years to accomplish that feat in a year where he wasn’t even in the NHL to start the season. Back in 2008, Bruce Boudreau did it too. He won the Adams for overseeing a remarkable turnaround in Washington, a team that was 30th in the league when he was promoted from AHL Hershey to take over from Glen Hanlon. The Capitals, under Boudreau, finished 37-17-7 to win the Southeast Division title and end a three-year playoff drought.
Boudreau is working his magic again with the Anaheim Ducks, a team he took over in December after Randy Carlyle was let go. As well as Anaheim has played since Jan. 1, it looks as if the Ducks’ admirable second-half push may still not be enough to get them into the top eight in the Western Conference.