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Just Like Coach, Leafs Show a Lot of Quit

Oct 12, 2009 – 10:49 PM
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Christopher Botta

Christopher Botta %BloggerTitle%

NEW YORK -- After his team's latest loss, a 7-2 embarrassment Monday night to the New York Rangers, Maple Leafs head coach Ron Wilson answered three softballs from state-owned Leafs TV and then responded to a question about the opponent by lavishing praise on his counterpart, John Tortorella. After all, when your team is out-everythinged and you've been as out-coached as Wilson was Monday, what else could he do?

But the true reveal on Wilson's character came as the rough, tough and massive Toronto print media corps got ready to pepper the coach with questions. (Actually, present were only one writer each from the Star and the Sun). Before the first could get his query out, Wilson -- who has as many Stanley Cup rings as anyone in the press room -- said, "That's it. I'm done."

That's it -- the behind-the-bench leadership of the 0-4-1 Maple Leafs.

The Leafs are a mess right now. Worse, they are a boring mess. As veteran left wing Niklas Hagman said after the game, "It's not working." As Gertrude Stein famously said, "There's no there there."

What, exactly, are these Maple Leafs?

Impossible to tell right now. Think of the Leafs and you don't think of a charismatic player or a defining style of play. The face of the franchise is Brian Burke, the talented, successful, presence-packed general manager for whom the verb and noun "bluster" seems to have been created. When you're an NHL flagship franchise and the biggest sports team in town and your star is the GM, you've got problems.

On Monday, the Maple Leafs had problems all over the Madison Square Garden ice. While Toronto is already in the mode of blaming everything on their goaltenders -- "You need your goalie to make a big stop," Wilson said Saturday after his team was out-classed in every phase by Pittsburgh -- the Leafs presented starter Vesa Toskala with a 5-on-3 just two minutes into the game. Ryan Callahan turned out to be the lucky one of three Rangers whacking away uncontested at Toskala to score the power play goal at 2:34 of the first.

Moments later, Toronto first-pair defensemen Mike Komisarek and Tomas Kaberle handled Vinny Prospal's two-week camping trip behind Toskala's goal like they were in peewee hockey. Although the teams were at even strength, Komisarek and Kaberle simply stared as Rangers defenseman Wade Redden eventually went to the goal unchecked by a Leafs forward and scored to make it 2-0.

On a power play with three minutes left in the first period, the entire Leafs' five-man unit was out-worked on their side of the red line by Callahan and Chris Drury. Only a sterling save by Toskala kept Toronto in the game. When they gave up another shorthanded chance late in the second, Leafs wing Jason Blake cross-checked Drury directly into Toskala's head. Three minutes into the final period his teammates abandoned him altogether as the Rangers scored twice to take a 5-2 lead.

But sure, keep on blaming the goaltending, coach. At least the players in the locker room have the pucks to put the blame on themselves. Said Toskala, "I have to be better. They bail me out. Sometimes I have to bail them out." Hagman: "This is the worst hockey I've played in a long, long, long, long, long time."

Burke talks a lot and says a lot -- partly because the chatter is good for the game, partly because he can't help it. But when the puck drops at 7:00 p.m., there's nothing a man in a suit in the press box can do for this team.
The Toronto defense, allegedly their one strength, is undisciplined and disorganized. Second-year defenseman Luke Schenn, hailed last season by the Ontario over-caffeinated as a combination of Borje Salming and Scott Stevens, looks unsure of himself.

During the second intermission, Burke did a fairly convincing impersonation of a man unmoved by his team's 0-4-1 start (the Leafs and Islanders are the NHL's only winless teams). The Toronto president & GM said, "We tried to improve our defense. Right now, we're not clicking."

Burke masterfully spun the agony of his legendary fan base into a positive, complimenting the people of Toronto for their devotion to the Maple Leafs.

Burke talks a lot and says a lot -- partly because the chatter is good for the game, partly because he can't help it. But when the puck drops at 7:00 PM, there's nothing a man in a suit in the press box can do for his team.

On the other hand, 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. They watched public enemy Sean Avery light them up for two goals.

Of course, it doesn't help when you have little offensive creativity and Burke's goal-scoring acquisition, Phil Kessel, is still a month away from returning from offseason shoulder surgery. Burke traded the Maple Leafs' first round pick in 2010 as part of the bounty for Kessel. Imagine the tension in Toronto if the team's woeful play continues and that pick is in the top five.

Barring dramatic improvement, the Maple Leafs may be in no man's land. Last year they weren't bad enough to properly "descend rapidly" (Burke's term) and be a part of John Tavares-Victor Hedman-Matt Duchene sweepstakes. Instead, they added B-plus prospect Nazem Kadri with the seventh overall pick. Because of the Kessel trade, there's no savior coming in next year's lottery.

Burke can shrug it off all he wants. It's getting late early in Toronto, and it appears his head coach only has the ability to inspire finger-pointing.
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