By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (Dec. 18) – With his club sitting directly on the playoff bubble, Ron Wilson is in need of a helping hand… 20 of them, in fact.
The crippling swoon of Novembers past appears to have been delayed a month this season, as the Maple Leafs are in a pre-Yuletide plummet – one that has them nestled uncomfortably in eighth place in the Eastern Conference. As such, the cushion derived from another starting bolt is now gone; the club with no further room to tumble. Whether or not an extended decline falls on Wilson will be up to general manager Brian Burke, but one thing is crystal-clear: it is open season on coaches in the National Hockey League.
When Jacques Martin was fired by Montreal on Saturday, he became the fifth-such casualty since the end of November, following changes in Washington, Carolina, Anaheim and Los Angeles. Bruce Boudreau, Paul Maurice, Randy Carlyle and Terry Murray walked the plank before Martin (Davis Payne was earlier rinsed by St. Louis in favour of Ken Hitchcock), and there’s no indication the firing trend will cease (though the holidays might encourage a pause).
Anyone frequenting this corner will know that I stood behind Wilson as the Maple Leafs wallowed through the first 60 games last season. It was my belief that a lack of personnel – including a monumental shortfall between the pipes – curtailed any real chance Wilson had of moving the team in the right direction. My stance appeared to be justified when the Leafs and rookie goalie James Reimer swallowed up a chunk of Conference territory over three weeks in the final third of the schedule. What had been a seemingly-hopeless 14-point playoff deficit for the Blue and White shrunk to four points, as the club won a string of pressure games in tough cities like Philadelphia, Boston, Buffalo and Montreal. Ultimately, the mountain was too steep to conquer, but Wilson appeared to be getting the best out of a number of key players – including captain Dion Phaneuf.
When the Leafs began the current season at 9-3-1, it appeared the coach was on his way to cementing his future in this city. Then came a 7-0 rout by Boston at the Air Canada Centre (on Nov. 5) and nothing has since been quite the same. The clinic that Saturday night by the defending champions began a streak of 7-10-2 for the Leafs (2-5-1 since winning three consecutively on the road) and you get the sense this thing is starting to slip away once again.
Wilson, therefore, is facing a multi-pronged conundrum: a) coaches around him are falling like autumn leaves; b) his club continues to soil the linen while killing penalties – which may partly reflect on Burke, who ordered a pair of changes to Wilson’s staff last summer. If Greg Cronin and Scott Gordon are a vast improvement over Tim Hunter and Keith Acton, we’re still awaiting evidence; c) should the gargantuan business deal concocted by telecommunication rivals Bell and Rogers make it past the Competition Bureau of Canada (and what doesn’t?), the Leafs will be under new ownership, guaranteeing absolutely nothing for those currently employed. The threat of a seventh consecutive playoff absence could easily imperil Burke, who won’t go down before making a change behind the bench. Only three players remain from the collection Burke inherited on Nov. 29, 2008: Nikolai Kulemin, Mikhail Grabovski and Luke Schenn. You can be sure no further overhaul will be executed in concert with the same coach.
None of this, of course, precludes the Maple Leafs from regaining equilibrium. Goaltending has been a major weakness this month, as Reimer continues to encounter the sophomore challenge while fighting back from a lengthy concussion absence. Jonas Gustavsson has been okay, but nothing more. It’s difficult to remember a goaltender stealing two points for the Leafs, as Reimer did in the final third of last season. Goalies and coaches are married to one another in every respect and the troika of Reimer, Gustavsson and Ben Scrivens hasn’t done Wilson many favours. A return to form by Reimer could steady the wobble, as the Leafs are fairly well-equipped elsewhere, with size and mobility on defense; speed to burn up front. But, a prolonged struggle by the club’s No. 1 goalie may have far-reaching implication.
In summary – and despite chatter of a contract extension – I no longer believe Burke will hesitate to fire Wilson, deservingly or otherwise. Professional sport is a hard, cruel business that supersedes enduring friendship (witness Jim Rutherford twice canning Maurice in Carolina). Should the Leafs continue to stagnate under Wilson, Burke will almost surely conclude he is out of options.
Here are my images from the Toronto-Vancouver game on Saturday night at the ACC:
THE LOOK SAYS IT ALL, DOESN’T IT? WILSON PEERS HEAVENWARD DURING THE LATE STAGES OF A 5-3 LOSS TO THE CANUCKS (ABOVE) AND STANDS UNHAPPILY BETWEEN ASSISTANTS SCOTT GORDON (LEFT) AND GREG CRONIN, BELOW.
CEILING ILLUMINATION REFLECTS OFF THE RESURFACED ICE (ABOVE) WHILE FANS UNFURL A GIANT CANADIAN FLAG (BELOW) DURING THE NATIONAL ANTHEM.
REFEREE KELLY SUTHERLAND GETS SET TO DROP THE PUCK (ABOVE) BETWEEN TIM CONNOLLY OF THE LEAFS AND HENRIK SEDIN OF VANCOUVER.
THE CANUCKS MADE LIFE MISERABLE FOR JONAS GUSTAVSSON IN THE FIRST PERIOD, AS EVIDENCED BY THE ABOVE TRIO OF PHOTOS. IT WAS ONLY A MATTER OF TIME BEFORE THE LINESMAN WOULD RETRIEVE A PUCK FROM THE TORONTO GOAL (BELOW).
ROBERTO LUONGO – TOWELLING OFF (ABOVE) DURING A TV TIME-OUT – MADE A NUMBER OF KEY SAVES IN THE OPENING PERIOD, INCLUDING A SHOW-STOPPER ON A PERFECT TWO-ON-ONE FEED FROM CLARKE MacARTHUR TO COLBY ARMSTRONG.
MIKHAIL GRABOVSKI FOUND A RATHER CONVENIENT LOCATION FOR HIS STICK DURING A FIRST-PERIOD ENTANGLEMENT (ABOVE) WITH CODY HODGSON.
CONNOLLY AND SEDIN WERE FACE-OFF RIVALS ALL NIGHT, PRACTICALLY BUTTING HEADS (BELOW) MIDWAY THROUGH THE SECOND PERIOD.
VANCOUVER COACH ALAIN VIGNEAULT HOLLERS INSTRUCTIONS (ABOVE).
AFTER A HECTIC FEW MOMENTS AROUND HIS NET, GUSTAVSSON SKATED ALL THE WAY TOWARD CENTRE-ICE FOR A BREATHER (ABOVE) DURING A TELEVISION BREAK.
SATURDAY’S GAME HAD MOMENTS OF CALM (ALEXANDRE BURROWS AND CLARKE MacARTHUR, ABOVE) AND A SPATE OF TURMOIL (BELOW) AS HENRIK SEDIN BARKED AT CONNOLLY AFTER A COLLISION DISLODGED THE GOAL.
DON’T EXPECT THE LOS ANGELES KINGS TO BE IN A PARTY MOOD AT THE ACC ON MONDAY NIGHT AFTER GETTING DRILLED IN MO-TOWN (ABOVE).
GUSTAVSSON STOOD ON THE BENCH (ABOVE) FOR AN EXTRA ATTACKER IN THE FINAL MINUTE OF PLAY, BUT VANCOUVER ENJOYED A COMFORTABLE LEAD (BELOW).
IN HIS POST-GAME SESSION WITH REPORTERS (ABOVE), WILSON CONSIGNED THE LEAFS 2-5-1 RECORD IN THE PAST EIGHT GAMES TO THE “EBB AND FLOW” OF THE LONG NHL SEASON.