Giving head coach Ron Wilson a contract extension was a necessity, Brian Burke said, because “when a coach goes into the cage, he needs both the whip and the chair, not just one.”
What the Toronto Maple Leafs general manager needs to add now is the tiger – the same tiger he has failed to add since acquiring Phil Kessel in September of 2009.
Forget the angst about a veteran goaltender or a shut-down defenceman or “secondary scoring.” As currently constituted, this group of Leafs forwards isn’t good enough to be anything other than first-round road kill if they make the playoffs.
It’s been 28 months since Kessel was acquired and he’s still stuck with lightweight centres to go along with a winger – Joffrey Lupul – that Burke lucked into. That’s a long time to wait for the other shoe to fall.
The Maple Leafs will play on Long Island on Tuesday, before shutting it down for the NHL all-star break, and Monday’s 3-0 win over the New York Islanders pretty much summed up the stasis that has characterized what should have been an easy stretch of 10 games.
Tuesday will signal the end of a run against competition that seemed mostly inferior when it all started on Jan. 3 against the Tampa Bay Lightning. Just one of those games was on the road (in Buffalo, which hardly counts) and the Leafs picked up 12 points in that time – simply not good enough.
Not that it has been all bad.
The penalty kill has righted itself and is arguably more effective than it has been in Wilson’s tenure. The Leafs have yet to allow a power-play goal in 2012 (16-for-16) so all that fuss during the team’s first practice of the new year – remember that players-only meeting, followed by animated discussions between players and coaches on the ice, and finally ropes that were brought out to map out shooting lanes and blocking strategies? – appears to have paid off. Regular use of Darryl Boyce and Joey Crabb has given the penalty kill an edge it lacked earlier in the season, but mostly it is a new sense of discipline. Fewer penalties mean less energy expended.
It also has a trickle-down effect on the goaltending, as Wilson explained after goaltender Jonas Gustavsson’s third shutout of the month.
“The penalty kill is a tiring part for the goalie, because when a team’s in your zone for two minutes, that’s a lot of moving side to side,” the coach said.
Burke doesn’t need anyone to remind him that he needs to make a significant acquisition; that it makes no sense to go all-in with a head coach who hasn’t had a sniff of the playoffs since he’s been in Toronto and then sit back.
The GM said this month he is interested in making a trade sooner than later. But he also suggested he won’t move defenceman Luke Schenn (when rumours surfaced the Philadelphia Flyers might be interested) and that is in the very least unnerving. Schenn and forward Nazem Kadri should most definitely be in play – as should about 80 per cent of the roster and anybody with the AHL’s Toronto Marlies.
It is understandable Maple Leafs fans would treat every draft choice and every prospect as a gift from the hockey gods – given the history of “draft schmaft,” John Ferguson Jr., and all that – but there is no way Burke should be putting limits on himself.
Who knows if some of the sexier names on the rumour mill – Anaheim Ducks winger Bobby Ryan, etc. – are anything more than somebody’s guesstimate or hunch?
There is a premium to be paid for being able to make a trade in advance of the league’s Feb. 27 deadline and now is not the time to be shy.
Only the true believers can look at January with satisfaction. Burke doesn’t have that luxury. He’s paid to be smarter than any of us.