Gord Stellick has a great line about the NHL: "If you're going to stink, stink on the road." That's why you get the sense this is a huge week for Ron Wilson.
The Toronto Maple Leafs are 6-4-2 at home with Tampa Bay (29th in goals against), Edmonton (30th) and Boston (2nd) coming to town. Toronto has 15 goals in its last four home games.
Despite that, they are 13th in the Eastern Conference, seven points out of a playoff spot. They still have 60 games to play, but, in the post-lockout NHL, falling behind that far this early is very dangerous. Three-point games make these pits difficult to escape.
It's easy to sit there and say, "Fire the coach!" - something I've never really been comfortable writing about. (When asked a couple of weeks ago if Wilson thought his job was in jeopardy, he replied that we're already 0-for-50 with those predictions. He politely declined comment about this particular situation.) But you have to look at this objectively. In the aftermath of Saturday's 3-0 defeat in Ottawa, I couldn't help but think that Wilson's got trouble, simply because Brian Burke may have to do something.
Struggles may force change
You can feel the pressure in Leaf land. The frustration is everywhere, from ownership on down to the players. Burke's tried everything, from seismic changes (Kessel, Phaneuf, Giguere) to rushing Nazem Kadri faster than the GM wanted. Kadri's call-up was specifically intended to wake the roster.
This is not all Wilson's fault. The Maple Leafs are very thin at centre, and it's extremely difficult to win without two or three good ones. Several core players (Francois Beauchemin and Mike Komisarek, for example) have disappointed. He railed against his goaltending for two years, and this season's proven him right with the team's goals-against down significantly. There's also been real improvement from some key young players - Jonas Gustavsson, Luke Schenn, Nikolai Kulemin and Mikhail Grabovski. That's proof there is good coaching going on.
When Wilson was hired, he said it would take six-to-eight years for the Maple Leafs to be a serious contender. Bob Gainey, still the GM in Montreal at the time, said it took that long to rebuild the Canadiens. The Maple Leafs have tried to rush that, and, predictably, it's not working.
You know what happens, though. You saw it in Columbus with Ken Hitchcock and St. Louis with Andy Murray. You can't change 23 players. I recently had a lengthy conversation with an NHL GM about changing coaches.
These are some of the things considered:
There wasn't a ton of that in either of Toronto's weekend losses. Part of the reason: Toronto is the NHL's youngest team. After Saturday's defeat, though, I asked one player if there was a systemic issue. The reason? There were so many turnovers when pucks were passed to places where there was no Maple Leaf. He said, "It's not the system. Guys just aren't battling to get there."
This is Year III for Wilson. He had four years in Anaheim, five in both Washington and San Jose.
That's one only Burke can answer.
No clear-cut stand-in
The other thing is, what's the solution? Who's the replacement? AHL boss Dallas Eakins is on a hot streak, but that may be too much too soon. Is it Keith Acton, Tim Hunter or Rob Zettler? Kevin Dineen or Jim Playfair in the Columbus/St. Louis model? (Dineen was in the Anaheim organization under Burke.) A former NHLer like Ken Hitchcock or Bob Hartley? You should never make the change without a good replacement in mind. That's pointless.
Burke clearly does not want to fire his old college teammate. He is very loyal. You see this in every sport, though. Team in trouble, GM under pressure, very tough to make trades. That's usually bad news for the coach.
Even if it's not entirely his fault.
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