I sense I’m virtually alone in this, but let me say it: you know what’s more discouraging to me than watching a team, when points matter so much at this time of year, lose 8 out of 9 games? It’s when I hear the coach, with the first words out of his mouth after the game, blame the loss on the fact that two easy goals went it to put his team in a hole.
Look, like a lot of you, I’ve followed and observed hockey (and the Leafs) for a long time. Decades, in my case. That doesn’t make me an expert, but I know what I’ve seen over the years. Of course goaltending matters. Of course goalies need to make saves. I get it.
And yes, in today’s NHL, the first goal matters, etc., etc..
But surely no Leaf fans missed the fact that, on the first Washington goal (less than a minute into the game-were we really tired already?) Phaneuf kind of sashayed toward the offending forward and, well, let him go. (In this case, I use the definition of “sashay” as “a journey taken for pleasure”.) OK, so let’s protect the captain, coach, and not call him out because, well, he's the captain and you can always find another goalie, right? (We’ve already destroyed any confidence poor Gustavsson ever might have had. Let’s work on Reimer now. And his mother should never have take that phone call from that awful, mean reporter, anyway…)
But moving along with the aforementioned play, the eager forward dared to go around the net (let go by Phaneuf, did I already mention that?). Surely we would take Johansson out on the other side of the post, right? My man Gunnarsson, who I defend here what feels like nightly, decides he’ll hang back and not get too sweaty and mussed up so early in the game. But we can’t mention that, eh, coach, ‘cause, after all, we may need to trade Gunner come Monday.
Of course, the Washington forward beat Reimer to the post. 1-0 Caps.
And of course there was that terrible second goal. It couldn't have been that our defenseman handed the puck to the forechecker (who wasn’t even really a forechecker until we gave him the puck), eh? Maybe that contributed to the “easy” goal?
Two goals. Could they have been saved? Sure. But hey, since nobody wants our crappy goalies in a trade, we can throw them under the bus publicly. No problem.
So the easiest thing for a coach who has no answers is, yes, to blame the young goalie—who can already probably barely keep his breakfast down every morning. Let’s call him out.
It can’t be the team is playing poorly on this home stand, right? I mean, really poorly.
And just for the record, coach, it’s not just “two weeks” as Wilson said after the game—unless the Leafs have played 9 games in 14 days and trust me, the schedule has not, repeat has not been bad, what with days off between games, etc.)
So the coach is basically saying: Don’t look at me. Fire the goalies. They’re our problem.
Remember the mantra: no complaints. No excuses. Right.
When it comes to coaches, Brian Burke is an extraordinarily loyal guy to those he puts in charge of his club. I don’t know precisely how often he has changed coaches in his 13 seasons as an NHL GM, but I know it hasn’t happened many times before.
We have all followed the recent chain of events in Leafland. Wilson signed his extension some weeks ago, though it was a perfunctory kind of extension—a “parachute” gift of only one extra season beyond this year, if I’m not mistaken. Three weeks ago, the Leafs were doing fine. Both goalies had nice runs at various points and the team was playing pretty well overall.
As I’ve often noted here, when the opposition lets Toronto dictate the game, the Leafs are fast, their defense makes those great “sudden offense” outlet passes to spring a flying forward and all is well with the world.
As I often say here, most NHL teams in this age of parity will, say, win three, lose three and have their little streaks when they look unbeatable and then not so good, and when that happens, fans begin to wonder what is going on. But then the team wins again, and the anxiety eases for a while and the promise of better days ahead takes over.
That said, the current Leaf “streak” is a bit more worrisome than the garden variety mini-slump. When you start talking about a stretch of 9 games and you earn two of a possible 18 points, we would seem to be past the point of suggesting this is one of those short-term “things”. It’s closer to a troubling trend than a mini-slump.
Realistically, only similar struggles from teams like Washington have kept the Leafs where they are right now, amazingly, and that is....still poised—with any kind of luck and any kind of concerted effort—to earn what should be an easily attainable playoff berth in the wide-open Eastern Conference.
As I posted here before, let’s be honest: their opposition to get into the playoffs at the low end of the top 8 is not exactly the ’77 Habs. (Heck, the top end of this division isn’t the ’77 Habs, even if you put the Rangers and Bruins together…) For their part, Ottawa works hard but is certainly beatable. Winnipeg? They have some really nice young talent but they can’t play every game at home, can they? The Panthers must be using mirrors and the Caps, until two days ago, have been absolutely dreadful compared with where they should be.
Now, we’ve been around the mulberry bush this season when it comes to the Leafs and “reasons” for their sometimes unsatisfactory play. Do we need to list them? It was the penalty-killing…then giveaways….then the power-play….then secondary scoring….then giving up too many goals. And of course, weak goaltending. Then we went back around the horn again. (I've posted often about the lack of "team toughness", but it's already a long list...)
Look, I don’t know what’s going on, to be honest. We obviously all have our own opinions as to whether it is or isn’t the fault of Reimer and Gustavsson, whether half the team should be traded, or whatever. Something has gone sideways and for me, it’s confusing.
I’m certainly not a blind Leaf loyalist. After 50 plus years, I have neither the hopeful dreaminess of youth about the blue and white, nor do I find it enjoyable to just criticize everything the organization does. I’m a big believer that every GM, every coach we have had here over the past 45 years has genuinely done their best to bring a championship to Toronto. (Ownership since 1970 or so, after the death of Stafford Smythe, well, I’m not so sure…)
This said, those who follow this site know that I do not stand up and applaud every time Burke makes a move. But I‘ve said many times, he’s a shrewd hockey guy. Not as good as he thinks, or as good as many fans think, but he’s good. (Click to read a recent post on this subject...)
I credit Wilson for being a coach who has endured a long time in a changing game and has earned a pretty good reputation—and has indeed had a degree of success. But I wonder, I just wonder if, in lieu of making moves at the trade deadline (I don’t think, by the way, you necessarily have to be a “buyer” or a "seller”—this Burke “build” isn’t just about the playoffs this spring so surely Burke’s intent is to build the best team he can for two years from now and beyond, no?), Burke may do something just as radical as a major deal but much more unexpected. And that is: pull a Lou Lamoriello and fire the coach at an unusual time.
Do I think he will do this? No, I do not. But might he consider this as one of the options, again, not just for the short-term, but in the long-term best interests of the club? I think it is possible. And I think it is possible if Burke feels he can find a coach “out there” who is available right now that he believes is the right and best fit for the team Burke has built these past three plus seasons—and will be the right fit going forward—he could consider a move behind the bench.
Alternatively, he may believe that one of the current assistant coaches has the right attitude, manner and experience such that an internal promotion is the answer.
I firmly believe Burke, as not only a smart hockey guy but a loyal individual, has wanted to give Wilson every chance to succeed under his watch. Remember, Wilson has worked with Burke on the Team USA side of things often, and while Cliff Fletcher hired Wilson here, there is mutual respect between the coach and Burke. Burke has defended Wilson but has also made it clear we need to see “returns”.
Burke’s comment has always been that he hasn't given Wilson a good enough team to make a fair judgment on him as Leaf coach. On the surface, fair enough, maybe. That comment is partly Burke being falsely self-critical. Because if Burke, after three and a half years, has not given his coach a team good enough to make the playoffs in the Eastern Conference (ahem…look at Florida under Tallon…), then Burke should be fired. And Burke will not be fired.
So the “truth” is that Burke has expected the Leafs, in a weak Eastern Conference, to make the playoffs this coming spring with the roster Wilson was given. (And yes it can still happen, with this very roster and with this coaching staff…) And I believe Burke expects and also needs to see this, not because (and we all agree) squeaking in just to get hammered by a top team won’t do much good by itself, but because it would be a step, a small step. It would mean that, assuming we are getting better (we are, right?), a playoff appearance would give all these youngsters a chance to experience what it’s all about, rather than just watch it with a beer in hand—as Leaf players have been doing for 8 years now.
So I sense that the Leaf brain trust is having different discussions tonight, and will all day Sunday. And the discussion will be about trades, yes. But it could also be about Wilson.
Why do I invoke Lamoriello’s name? You may (rightly) say he’s a guy who’s always had top teams. There is no real comparison, in that sense. My point is, on at least two occasions, (was it only once, help me out) I seem to recall Lamoriello firing a coach days/weeks before the playoffs started. They went on to win the Cup with Larry Robinson behind the bench one time, or am I dreaming this?
But Lou makes those kinds of moves that go against convention. While it would surprise me if Burke does the same, I really do believe it matters to him that the Leafs make the playoffs this spring. Again, not just because “anything can happen once you get there”, but more because at the end of almost four seasons on the job, while we all want to wax hopeful about how young and fast we are and how the future looks bright, it gets harder to sell the idea when the salesman’s “sale numbers” just don’t add up—and we keep hearing the same promise, and the same song (as we have the last two seasons at least) that the playoffs are absolutely the goal and should be achievable.
Would a coaching change help? Again, I’m not saying it should be done, or will be done. Any change would have to be about the future, not just the next two months.
Let me know your thoughts.