Brian Burke has as many reasons to be a buyer as he does to be a seller as Monday’s trade deadline approaches, but there’s another option, too – be a terminator, and fire head coach Ron Wilson.
In fact, the longer the microphone stood unattended following Saturday’s 4-2 loss to the Washington Capitals, the more you wondered whether it would be the general manager and not Wilson emerging from one of the back rooms outside the Air Canada Centre press room. No such luck: Wilson came out, put the blame on James Reimer, said that everything would be better after the expiration of the trade deadline – a change from his explanation following Thursday’s loss to the San Jose Sharks, when he suggested one of the youngest teams in the NHL was out of gas with a quarter of the schedule left – and muttered about how the Capitals’ early lead allowed the visitors to turn the neutral zone into a “minefield.”
Funny how that works. Funny how there are traps all over the place, both real and imagined, for an increasingly soft and on most nights unprepared team.
Wilson didn’t blame Saturday’s pre-game ceremony celebrating the 50th anniversary of the 1962 Stanley Cup champions, but he would have had a right to. Seriously, this couldn’t have been done two months ago?
The Leafs stood along the blueline for 20 minutes cooling their heels while the Capitals filed out just before the anthems. Thirty-two seconds into the game the Caps had a 1-0 lead, when head coach Dale Hunter caught Wilson and the Leafs napping with a line change immediately after the opening faceoff and threw Alexander Ovechkin’s trio over the boards.
The Leafs nominal shut-down defence pair of Dion Phaneuf and Carl Gunnarsson jumped over and made it in to the fray just in time to see the puck wrapped behind Reimer. This is the same team that lost 5-0 to the Montreal Canadiens on Mats Sundin Night, and don’t ever let anybody tell you this team’s history isn’t a millstone. (Oh, and to find the identity of the person who scribbled the words: ‘A quick ceremony is a good ceremony. Drop the puck!!!’ on a production sheet for the pre-game script that was left in the broadcast area of the pressbox on Saturday night.)
Slow starts – and the Leafs have made habit of it under Wilson – are a direct reflection on preparation and on the coaching staff. So is lousy defensive zone coverage, which is a wholly teachable part of any sport. So, too, is the regression of players, and while Wilson was properly credited with a role in the development of Luke Schenn and Nikolai Kulemin and Mikhail Grabovski, Schenn and Kulemin have slipped to the point where they aren’t even worth what they once were as trade commodities.
The goaltending? That’s on Burke and goaltending coach François Allaire as much as Wilson.
What makes the case for ditching Wilson stronger is that the last two losses have come against teams with fragile psyches of their own, not to mention that the Capitals and goalie Michal Neuvirth were playing their second game in as many nights.
Yet through all the charity that has left or kept about five teams in the Eastern Conference playoff race around them, the Leafs still have a shot at something. So there are two ways Burke can go today. Firing Wilson would be a bold move and given that Burke’s carefully detailed, self-imposed criteria for canning a coach – agents calling to complain that their players don’t like the coach, unnamed players taking shots at the coach – appear to be non-existent, it would seem to be out of character.
Yet it’s clear that Burke thought he had a playoff team at Christmas when he flippantly gave Wilson a contract extension, saying he wanted to give his coach a whip and a chair down the stretch. If Burke thinks this is still a playoff team, then why not bring in Randy Carlyle to shake things up? If Burke thinks it’s still a work in progress, sell off some players and let Toronto Marlies head coach Dallas Eakins be the next one to trade a bus ride to Peoria for a cab ride to the Air Canada Centre?
Honestly: do you think the Leafs playoffs chances are any worse with a rookie head coach?
Burke has shown a willingness to cut his losses with free agents such as Kris Versteeg and François Beauchemin. Time, then, for the GM to take off the blinders with his head coach. There are suggestions that there isn’t unanimity about Wilson’s status among Burke’s assistants, but will any of them have the stones to stand up and bang on the table? Just because Burke doesn’t want to do it, it doesn’t mean cutting his losses with the head coach isn’t the right thing to do.