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Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Ron Wilson. Darren Calabrese for The Globe and Mail (Darren Calabrese)
Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Ron Wilson. Darren Calabrese for The Globe and Mail (Darren Calabrese)

Jeff Blair

Brian Burke in no rush to decide Ron Wilson's future Add to ...

Whether it was something everybody had overlooked to this point or a carefully-planted excuse, Brian Burke on Tuesday introduced labour peace as part of the equation that would determine whether Ron Wilson gets a contract extension beyond 2011-12.

How's that for a Hobson's choice? No hockey or no Ron Wilson.

In times it seemed as if Burke, the Toronto Maple Leafs general manager, was channelling his inner Bryan Colangelo as he discussed the Leafs' sixth consecutive season out of the playoffs in the rotunda of the Air Canada Centre. Not exactly all soul of an accountant polish and poise and deliberation, but the tie was slightly-less askew than in previous seasons and while Burke had pointed comments in response to some questions ("If people disagree with me they are confusing me with someone who cares about their opinion," was his response to a question about Wilson's coaching), there was less of the full Irish this time around.

Burke really does believe the Leafs are, to borrow Wilson's words from Monday, two or three players away from contending for the Stanley Cup. "What team in this league isn't a contender if you add three players - the right three players?" he asked and, yeah well, he does have a point there. Of immediate concern, Burke reiterated that the team's coaching staff will return intact. Extensions, he said, will be discussed after the world championship. "There is no reason to extend the coaches in particular at this time - they are all under contract for next year," he said.

Wilson is the first Leafs coach to miss the playoffs three seasons in a row, but Burke was categorical in saying: "I felt that the first time I'd given Ron a competitive group was the second half of the [2010-11]season."

Burke was blunt: The Leafs missed the playoffs because of special teams but he blames the players and not the coaches or system. Burke sees the concern being addressed by player acquisition, not coaching deletion.

It is Wilson that is the storyline and at this time the notion of extending him seems pointless. Seriously: Everybody's seen Wilson's thrust and parry with the media since he's been here. The man's coached with his job on the line for the last year and a half. Wilson will be just fine with the lame-duck questions that are sure to surface if he does not sign an extension. He's probably already scribbling out pithy retorts.

Only Burke knows whether his players will respond by rallying around and playing for their coach or take the opposite tack, but the guess here is that since Burke's iron fist reaches down deep into the dressing room, it won't be an issue. Frankly, if Burke hasn't fired Wilson by now, the head coach is probably safe in assuming that, if he does a decent job at the start of next season, the new contract will be done in a hurry. Wilson still has currency with Burke, that is apparent, and if the promise of the second half turns out not to be the building block that this city dearly wants it to be, Wilson won't want to be here, anyhow.

The NHL's collective agreement expires in September of 2012, and Burke offered it up as an unsolicited cautionary note. "That's one issue as far as extending anyone is concerned," Burke said. Coupled with the way team owner Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment has handled the status of Toronto Raptors GM Bryan Colangelo and head coach Jay Triano in advance of a likely NBA stoppage, it's permissible to wonder if those orders aren't from on high.

But there's all manner of moving pieces, here. Controlling interest in MLSE will likely be sold before September of 2012, and meanwhile the search for chief executive officer Richard Peddie's replacement continues. Burke has all the reasons - excuses? - he needs to delay offering Wilson or his staff an extension. It's easier for him now than it was two months ago to make the case they shouldn't be fired but is it really easier to say they deserve an extension? No. Burke prefaced his discussion by reiterating that in his mind any season in which a team doesn't make the playoffs is a failure. So let's call this season a qualified failure - not worthy of anybody losing his head, nor worthy of a reward.

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