The first thing Ron Wilson wants to do tonight at the United Center is "pull the plug on the organ," then get rid of the national anthem singer. Failing that, Wilson would settle for having Luke Schenn plugged in.
Schenn was Wilson's fair-haired boy last season. That's not the case any more. In a published report yesterday, the Toronto Maple Leafs head coach was blunt about what awaits Schenn if he doesn't truck out some truculence.
"Hopefully, it doesn't come to him sitting out games to get a message across," Wilson intoned.
Schenn makes his first visit tonight to the NHL's noisiest building to play the Chicago Blackhawks, and with Mike Komisarek out for at least three weeks, well, it is time to put this sophomore jinx drivel to rest, no?
"I didn't see him play last year, but everybody says he was a solid [defenceman] a physical guy ... and everybody says he hasn't played as well as last year," said François Beauchemin, who, as Schenn's sometimes partner this season, has at times looked as if he wanted to turn him over his lap and spank him. "I think he, like everybody else, has to keep things simple. Make the easiest pass. Make a play without trying to hold on to it too much."
Beauchemin was asked to think back to his second full NHL season (2006-07) and draw a comparison to Schenn's. Not fair, he said.
That Anaheim Ducks team won the Stanley Cup, and Beauchemin was six years older than Schenn, who turned 20 on Nov. 2.
"I was fortunate to play with guys like Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer," Beauchemin said. "We had a great team. We were solid in all three zones and had great goaltending. We were all playing with confidence. That would be a difference here, so far this year."
It stands to reason that with yesterday's announcement that Komisarek has what Wilson described as a "small quadriceps tear," Schenn may see his ice time increase.
He was paired in practice with Garnet Exelby, and the Leafs also called up Carl Gunnarsson from the Toronto Marlies of the AHL. Wilson said he wanted to see Gunnarsson in a game "probably sooner than later," although not tonight.
"I wouldn't hesitate to use Carl if somebody didn't hold up their end," Wilson said.
This is when it becomes a profession. The adrenalin that would help you slog your way through the mire of a long, rookie season? The newness? Meh. Not so much any more.
"I haven't had the start I'd like," Schenn said. "Some people say it's the second-year thing ... but, I don't know. Last year, the opportunity came easy. Not easy, but it was like I wasn't thinking much. I was going on instinct. The second year ... maybe you start thinking too much."
The last time Wilson was at the United Center, he was head coach of the San Jose Sharks, and Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita were honoured. The Leafs have not played in Chicago since Dec. 22, 2006, but Toronto has not beaten Chicago anywhere since Feb. 12, 2003.
"You don't get as claustrophobic as you did in the old [Chicago]Stadium," Wilson said. "But you have to weather the first five minutes. That's always been the key to me. If you don't, you can find yourself down quickly.
"You have to make the smart play," Wilson said. "You have to be prepared to take a hit in your own end to make a play. It doesn't matter who has coached that team, since I've been in the league it's like those first 10 minutes are a hurricane."
The Leafs now appear to have settled into the normal Sturm und Drang of an NHL season.
A win here, a loss there. Couple of wins here, a loss there. The panic has been replaced by the push and pull of what finally seems like a normal season and the question now for Wilson and general manager Brian Burke is not so much whether Schenn's regression has been a contributing factor to the uncertain start as it is whether the big defenceman can play a role in moving the thing forward.
He might want to find the eye of that storm tonight.
NOTES Vesa Toskala was the first goaltender off the ice yesterday. He will start either tonight's game or tomorrow's at the ACC against the Calgary Flames.
next game Today, at Chicago Blackhawks, 8:30 p.m. EST
TV Rogers Sportsnet (Ont.)
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