October 13, 2009
Like the source of Taco Bell's ground beef and the possibility of a "Lady In The Water" sequel, the potential for Toronto Maple Leafs Coach Ron Wilson losing his job at this point in the season is something I've refused to contemplate.
That was until I hopped on HNIC Radio with Jeff Marek yesterday and it became apparent that Wilson's removal was, for many observers, a distinct possibility given the Leafs' stumble out of the gate and the unreasonable expectations placed on both coach and team.
Unreasonable in the sense that the Toronto Maple Leafs were not going to lead the NHL in goals scored and win at a .666 clip (though numerically appropriate, considering the subject) like they did in their preseason tease.
Unreasonable in the sense that, as Marek pointed out, Burke traded what's suddenly looking like a lottery pick to the Boston Bruins for first-line player who isn't in the lineup until the end of November. No pressure there.
Unreasonable in the sense that despite the improvements on the blue line, this is still the worst defensive team in hockey (24 goals against) with two goalies -- Vesa Toskala(notes) (5.57 GAA, .810 save percentage) and Jonas Gustavsson(notes) (3.08 GAA, .890 save percentage) -- who couldn't stop a nose bleed.
Don't misunderstand: Wilson's not infallible in this mess. But the cases against him don't justify what would be panic city in T.O.
Christopher Botta of FanHouse was one of the first with the knives out last night after the team's 7-2 loss at the New York Rangers; stopping short of calling for Wilson's head but carving him up as a quitter for abruptly ducking out of his postgame press conference:
Wilson likes to give the media lectures on the kinds of questions reporters should ask, yet he seems to have no answers for his last-place hockey team. Facing a Rangers team that played the night before, the Leafs were the whupped team in the third, getting out-scored 4-0 and, worse, displaying no heart. This team wins the occasional fight, but little else. Monday night, they didn't even have any fight left in them.
Damien Cox has been selling crazy on this Leafs team since he realized his prediction of a playoff seed may have been a tad, ahem, premature. But the Toronto Star columnist sees Wilson's reign as an 87-game body of work instead of a five-game regular-season sample. Now, he doesn't think Wilson will be axed, but ...
Given that the team does not own a proven NHL starting goaltender, the need for quality defensive play is greater now than at any time previously during Wilson's reign. Yet the club ran around at Madison Square Garden last night even worse than they did at home to Pittsburgh on Saturday.
It would be a shocker if Burke pulled the plug on Wilson, and don't bet on it. But coaches do get canned after starts like this. It happens.
Here's one from the fantasy department for you. Imagine if Burke axed Wilson and turned to ex-Phoenix coach Wayne Gretzky to coach the Leafs.
Would Gretzky do it? Could he possibly turn it down? Now that would be a shakeup.
But again, that's pure fantasy, not even worthy of being called speculation. Try idle chatter.
The blogs have ranged from scathing indictments of Wilson to reasoned assessments of his lot in life. See if you can figure out into which category Mark Gregory's rant on the Bleacher Report falls into:
The players have not responded to Wilson. Wilson's loyalty to let his overpaid players play, and his stubborn insistence on playing Toskala even though it is apparent to everyone there was a problem four games ago.
Time to throw Wilson overboard before the whole Leaf season sinks, like the Titanic. Time to change those who refuse to change. Evolve or die, things must get better for the Leafs, because they can't get any worse.
Granted it's only been a year and change, but horrendous defensive zone play and suspect penalty killing have begun to define Wilson's tenure in Toronto. Hopefully that'll change once Jonas Gustavsson takes up permanent residence between the pipes, but I'm worried. Enough to be thinking about the ex, Paul Maurice. And no Leafs coach should ever leave me pining for Maurice's return. I just can't shake the feeling: if Wilson couldn't get it done in San Jose, there's no way he accomplishes anything of substance (playoffs!!1) with the Maple Leafs.
But it's GM Brian Burke taking a hit elsewhere on the Web. Greg Caggiano on Metro Hockey takes an outsider's approach to the Leafs mess and writes that Burke has gone from "Genius to Mockery." From Metro Hockey:
One may argue that the season is still early and there is time for improvement. But as said in tonight's game by Sam Rosen, Colton Orr(notes) is currently their best forward. Need anything more be said? There are still seventy-five games remaining, but current GM of the St. Louis Blues John Davidson used to always say, "The points you win in October are the points you don't need in April." Meaning simply that it does not matter when the game is, a win is a win, and a loss is a loss.
Following tonight's 7-2 loss to the Rangers, Leafs' head coach Ron Wilson walked up to the podium and said, "I'm done." Then walked away. The clock may already be ticking for him, and it should be for Burke as well, who has turned this once proud organization into the mockery of the NHL.
Finally, Pension Plan Puppets gets it right (as usual): It's pretty damn hard for a coach or a team to play with any confidence when an empty net would improve the current state of Leafs goaltending:
Ron Wilson has complained that things are really depressing and it's not too hard to understand why. If I was busting my ass only to see a terrible goal it would sap a lot of the will out of me. Especially if I killed myself during training camp to get the opportunity to make the team or improve my standing while the black hole in net was gifted his position and gets nothing but support from the coach. But that's just me. I've never had to play on a team with at least two superior options in net that didn't see the ice because of reasons beyond comprehension to every outside observer.
Several things can and will occur before Wilson is dismissed, assuming the GM would ever jettison his handpicked coach (er, uh, we mean someone else's handpicked coach, because Burke was with the Ducks at the time, you see). Young players like James Reimer(notes) or Tyler Bozak(notes) could infuse a little hunger or competition into the lineup. Francois Beauchemin(notes) and Mike Komisarek(notes) could, in theory, begin earning a few pennies of their wages. Some dramatic transaction to salvage the goaltending could occur. (And Joey MacDonald's(notes) between the pipes tonight against the Colorado Avalanche, with Toskala "hurt.")
One or two wins, and that preseason swagger could return, right?
But Wilson? Safe. For now. Barring an Epic Fail that sees the Leafs go winless in, like, their first dozen games. It's still early, and he's a smart coach. Just not when it comes to spelling:
That Gianta. Quite a player.