Sometimes, amid the mists and eddies of another lost season in Toronto, the master plan can be hard to discern, an odd and contradictory development on the surface of things. After all, Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke and coach Ron Wilson spend more time in front of the cameras than the Kardashians do. You’d think the message would be loud and clear.
But it isn’t usually, and in sifting through the rubble of this year’s fade to black, you’d have to think that Wilson will be shown the door soon after the Leafs are mathematically eliminated from playoff contention.
Since Burke rarely strays from his pattern of hiring trustworthy fellows from within his inner circle, then Randy Carlyle will be the next coach of the Maple Leafs. Carlyle is gainfully unemployed at the moment, cut loose by the Anaheim Ducks this season, but he won a Stanley Cup with Burke in 2007, has glittering credentials, is demanding but fair, and most important, he would be a new voice in Toronto.
What ails Toronto is clear: The Leafs make too many egregious defensive errors in front of their goaltenders, and their goaltenders don’t bail them out with sensational saves. It’s not an either-or proposition, as some of the finger-pointers would have you believe. It’s both, and when a team’s overall defensive play is as incoherent as Toronto’s, it can usually be traced back to two factors, coaching and youth.
The most perplexing thing about the Leafs’ inaction at the trade deadline is that they didn’t come up with an experienced, short-term fix in goal. You can understand why they didn’t land Evgeni Nabokov from the New York Islanders; he wasn’t available. You can understand why they didn’t land Nikolai Khabibulin from the Edmonton Oilers; they were unwilling to take on the last year of his contract.
But it’s harder to fathom why they didn’t roll the dice on the Minnesota Wild’s pending unrestricted free agent, Josh Harding, if, as TSN’s Bob McKenzie reported, the asking price was a second-round draft choice. Understandably, there are questions about Harding’s upside, and his injury history scares some teams, too.
Drafting and developing goalies is not an exact science, and Burke may even be right, that James Reimer will eventually get his game back on the rails after suffering through the kind of sophomore slump that so many goalies have endured. But for now, to stanch the bleeding, with a playoff berth still within grasp, the Leafs needed help in the short term, and didn’t get it.
Sometimes teams going through an ownership shift may put a halt on moves of any description – the Dallas Stars and the St. Louis Blues are two such cases – but that is unlikely what happened in Toronto, where Burke has carte blanche to do what he wants when he wants.
Burke is right about another thing, too. One of the issues in Toronto is all the daily, unending noise. When Wilson originally took the job, he once reminded me that he’d been a cheerful, easy-to-deal with interview subject throughout his career, in a series of non-traditional markets, and you couldn’t disagree. But Toronto caught him unawares. Toronto is different. Toronto is unrelenting. Toronto is non-stop. Toronto is 24/7, without the HBO cameras. It’s not as if there are even that many individual threats on press row. It’s just the sheer weight of the coverage, the sheer numbers waiting to digest every solitary sound bite.
So in Toronto, the coach can lay all the blame on the goaltending one day, and the GM rushes to the goalies’ collective defence the next, and because everybody is paying attention, they rightly ask: What’s with the mixed message? The same mixed message might pass unnoticed in 20 other NHL markets. Not in Toronto.
The Leafs’ current slide obscures one thing that Burke has done well – put some young talent in place that, properly developed, will at some point blossom. On some levels, it is a scorched-earth rebuild, masqueraded by the absence of high draft choices. They are impossibly young now, at the NHL level and down on the farm, and that fact is largely obscured by the manic day-to-day wailing for change, amid the increasingly likely possibility that Toronto will miss the playoffs for the seventh year in a row.
Just remember this: After four years at the bottom of the pile, the Pittsburgh Penguins made a 47-point leap in the standings to make the playoffs in 2007. After three years in the Southeast cellar, the Washington Capitals made a 24-point jump to make the playoffs in 2008. Generally, when a young team finally figures it out, when the pieces all start to fit together, it doesn’t happen in small steps. It comes in one giant leap forward.
The Leafs are not there yet, but they’re closer than their play in the past month would have you believe. With a little more experience, in goal and on defence, and with a fresh voice behind the bench, it’ll happen. Soon. Promise.