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Are Kessel and Versteeg the intended receivers of the Wilson message? And who are the Burke “untouchables”?

Lousy starts on the scoreboard will soon become a disturbing trend if this continues—but it’s not as if we didn’t know who the Leafs were scheduled to play over the past four games.  Those were not easy games and they were played over a very short period of time.

The Leafs tried to make things happen against the veteran Flyers, but even when they did, the Flyers were either fortunate (Boucher didn’t look that sharp to me, but the Leafs sure missed some chances) or the they took advantage of Toronto’s over-eagerness.  The most glaring example of that was the Phaneuf hit on Jody Shelley, who absorbed the big hit to make a play that led to the 4-1 goal late in the second period.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve posted on occasion about the sometimes very thin line that divides what fans perceive, with any given player, as success or failure.  That is, a guy may work his tail off, play well, set up plays, take good shots but nothing, or very little, goes in the net.

Sometimes shots go in, sometimes they don’t.  (We saw that with the Leafs again on Thursday night, Armstrong, Kadri, Versteeg, Kessel all ‘mis-aiming’ on various opportunities.)

When the point total stalls, right away we say somebody is in a “slump” when they may in fact be playing, overall, very well.  But if they aren’t scoring, or earning points, the easy thing to do is to assume—and proclaim— that the player is in a slump.

For me, I guess, a guy is in a slump when he is not doing the things that need to get done to compete and perform consistently well at this level.  So if scorers aren’t scoring, then they have to make other contributions.  If a guy is a checker, then he needs to shut people down, eliminate chances, all that stuff.  If he isn’t shutting people down, then he needs to contribute on offense.

If those players—scorers or checkers— aren’t doing either of the things that they need to do well, then they are indeed in a “slump”.  They may not be confident.  They might be mentally off.  They may be playing hurt.  Whatever the reasons, things aren't clicking.

At the end of the day it is about competing hard— and producing.  At some point your scorers, for example, need to score.  And they need to compete, hard. Very hard.

The game is so different now than when I was young, in the late 1950s and into the ‘60s.  Back then, turnovers were common, expected.  Now, the speed of the game is such that, if a player makes the tiniest error in any part of the ice, the puck is quickly moved to an open man and the other team has a scoring opportunity— and maybe a goal.

When Wilson went after his own players, without naming names, after the Penguin loss, he basically said, “I wish our top guys competed as hard as Crosby does”.  Now, in fairness, beyond his well-honed skill level, Crosby is better than everyone right now because he also has a huge appetite for success.  So he plays hard, very hard.  As Gretzky used to say, “You know what beats hard work?  Talent and hard work”.  That’s Crosby.

So the Leafs aren’t alone in not having many guys who work as hard as Crosby does.  But for me, the illuminating part of that comment is Wilson’s “top guys” reference.  Coaches say that a fair bit.  It’s the old, “Our best players have to be our best players” routine, which is a cousin of “our top guys have to be better than their top guys”.

In any event, when it comes to the Leafs, what is really troubling Wilson, one wonders?  Oh, I know a series of slow starts out of the gate rankles any coach.  Because when you hear players say things like “We just weren’t ready to play” coaches tend to take offense. Why?  Well, yes, we assume professionals should get themselves ready “to play”.  But coaches are part of that equation.  It’s only a small step from “We just weren’t ready to play” to (and though the words are never spoken publicly) “The coach didn’t have up properly prepared for this one…”

That is what fans—and the media—tend to interpret when they hear players say they weren’t ready to play.  That is,  that the coach didn’t have them ready.

I find it improbable to believe that Wilson does not have his team prepared from a tactical perspective.  I mean, the guy has been a successful NHL coach for ages.  You can just see he wants his team to succeed.  This is an intense, competitive guy.  He may not show the emotion that some people like to see behind the bench, but it’s there.  And he has a very experienced staff of former NHL players on his staff, with all kinds of coaching know-how.

Emotionally, mentally, are the players ready every night?  That, I don’t know.  But Wilson is trying everything he knows.

So when he expresses frustration, what is he really saying?  Who is he really pointing at?

The other question is, who are these “top guys” he refers to?  In truth, the Leafs are just a bit shy of “top guys” (in the same way that Bob Uecker, on the radio, calls a pitch “just a bit outside” in the movie “Major League”, when the pitch actually hits the backstop).

By top guys, does Wilson mean Bozak?  Kulemin?  Grabovski (who has been one of their few consistent offensive producers)?  MacArthur, who is the other guy producing?

Or are his sights, again, aimed at Phil Kessel?  And perhaps Versteeg?

I have no idea what’s going on inside that dressing room.  But Kessel, through 28 (presumably healthy, unlike last season) games has a grand total of 16 points and is a minus 10.

Now, I expect those numbers to shift dramatically, when he gets on a roll.  Things tend to balance out over the course of a season.  But you’d like to see the production when it matters, when the playoffs are still in play, as it were. (He got hot in the second half of last season, but the playoff bus had essentially left the building by then.)

For his part, Vertseeg is minus 14.  That’s not good, no matter how you try to break it down.  (We can only use the old, “well, players get caught in line changes sometimes and that affects their plus/minus…” so often. The breaks work both ways.)  Minus 14 is what it is.

The long-term forecast for the Wilson-Kessel relationship is something I’ve posted on in the past.  In the short term, I'm not confident things will be easy for them.

In fairness, on this team, we have a lot of guys who are playing, if not out of position, probably out of their proper “place”, their comfort zone.  I mean, Versteeg was never a first-line winger in his NHL life until he came here.  MacArthur has been a real “find”— but did anyone, in truth, see him as a top-six forward when Atlanta walked away from him over the summer?

Even Colby Armstrong, who I posted on earlier this week, is not a classic “top-six” guy.  He brings other important attributes most nights but on a really good squad is not a first or second-line guy.

This is not new news, of course.  Fans know the Leafs are struggling to find six guys who can play the top-six forward positions.  Kadri, at 20, with a handful of games in the league, was basically handed the number-one center job for a time.  Bozak, with about 40 games on his resume from last season, had it before Kadri.  Kessel suddenly became a center.

We’re limited, here, we really are.

But it’s clear that Wilson is expecting more from a lot of guys, certainly from Versteeg and Kessel, in terms of production, but probably even more so in terms of determination— every single night.

I’ll say it again, when the Leafs win, things feel good—for a while.  People see the positive steps Burke has taken.

But if the Leafs struggle, I return to a point I made not long back:  when will Burke play one of the few cards he has left with the present roster, since he doesn’t want to change coaches?  That card is:  saying publicly, for all to hear (click on the link to see the story), “No one here is untouchable”?



  1. I have to admit, being a Leaf fan has been hard over the years, but I still take great pride. The main reason being, the years that I truly saw my team compete, they had heart, I mean players like Gilmour, Anderson, Clarkie, and Potvin (one of my favorite moments of all time was Potvin dueling with scary Hextall at center ice) or the next version with Sundin, Tucker, Corson, Kabs, Joseph, Yushkevich. These guys had the passion to win and did what it takes. I am really scared about Kessel.

    Last year when Kessel came back and his drought started, I noticed he had no perseverance. He would just wait, and wait. He eventually came out, and when teams didn't care much about the outcome because they had already gained a spot for the playoffs, he potted a few goals. Then main problem I see is, he has no heart, and playing in the hockey mecca, it will be noticed very quickly and the city will turn on him. I am disgusted with his backcheck, I am disgusted with his hockey sense, but most of all, I am truly saddened that someone with his talent might not learn how to be best he can be, a true legend. Unfortunately with the way the NHL is today, there is a very good chance he will never know.

    In the past, I think there was a lot more respect for a coach, and there was a sense of duty and honor towards the team you played for. These days there is no value in those traits, it's about the dollar, and where the wife wants to be. It about which team is closest to the cup so I can go back home and gloat or "if my coach benches me, what does he know, I am out of here" (what Kessel did in Boston). I hope Wilson and Burke have the brains and the confidence to bend the little 23 year old over, and give him a good spanking to understand the pride he should have to put on a Toronto Maple Leaf Jersey.

  2. Long suffering Leaf fanDecember 10, 2010 at 7:16 AM

    Watching the last two games can send a person to the land of despondency. Come on...I can accept superior talent making a difference in a game as Cosby is doing for Pittsburgh and Carter for Philadelphia! But what is driving me to the loney bin is how our centers cannot win face-offs! Has there been a game this season where our centers at least won 50% of their draws? Oh how I long for the days of lesser talented centers than what the Pens and Flyers have on their respective teams. Yet who still came up big in the face off dot-Peter Zezel, Yanic Perreault, Walt Mckechine, Jim Harrison. You cannot hope to set-up a power play or kill penalties when the opposition has the puck. As for the so-call NO UNTOUCHABLES...Kessel is quickly reminding me of a certain left-winger the Leafs traded to Detroit whom his teammates said, "Why is everybody getting upset about losing a guy who can only score goals when the game isn't on the line or out of reach?" Hello there Errol Thompson! And as for Phaneuf, I will quote what was said about another defenseman of like skills: "I feel sorry for him, he always wanted to be a super star instead of just settling for being a very good defenseman in his own end who could chip in offensively". Poor Ian Turnbull a hall famer who never was...

  3. I'm resigned to another year of "rebuilding". The Leafs are better in goal and tougher on defence than they were a year ago, so there's been some progress.
    The forwards all seem lost out there at the moment. Whereas the Pens, or Flyers, or (fill in the top team) seem to have a PLAN in the offensive zone, the Leafs scramble around like kids on a rink. They pass when they should shoot, shoot when they should pass, and miss the net far too often. Is that coaching? The players? You tell me.

  4. Well, they got in his mess by not drafting well and more importantly not drafting often early. All we have from the 1st round for the last 6 years are Schenn and Kadri. Or is it 7? The Leafs haven't been in rebuilding mode since 1971-74. When was the last team we had that had 8 draft picks at the core of the team? September 1979. Now we have Schenn, Kadri, Gunnarsson, and Mitchell. Huh. We could've drafted in the 1st but oh no, we need to win yesterday.

    Draft, build a core, THEN trade and sign FA's. Leafs have never done that, OK they did in the 70's when they built a Stanley Cup contender from 1976-1979.

    We're young, but untalented and not hungry to win eeach shift. Schenn, Grabovski, Gustavsson, Kulemin, Clarke, Armstrong show fire, but only 3 have talent.

  5. I'm a really big leafs fan, but whenever I see them lose like that it really hits home! The worst thing is that they lost to the penguins! I hate the penguins, and more then that I hate crosby! I think that they deserved hte waffle being thrown at them, but not Armstrong! <3 Anyways, urghhh.. Leafs please try harder!