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Can't Just Blame The Coach

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs

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“No coaching change.”

With those three words, Leafs GM Brian Burke killed the attraction for media onlookers at Friday’s Leafs practice.

He also wiped out, at least until the next question, an instant, convenient explanation to what plagues this 28th place team.

Look, there is no doubting that the Leafs are delivering a record absolutely conducive to their standing as the NHL’s youngest team.

Suddenly, every worst-case scenario is in play. Jonas Gustavsson, stellar up to Thursday’s seventh-straight start was yanked during a 5-0 loss to Edmonton.  The Leafs have been shut out once every four games.  They are tied for fewest goals scored. While the Leafs are 16th in goals against, the combination of injuries to veterans Dion Phaneuf and Colby Armstrong has left precious veteran perspective during the hard times.

Armstrong is back for the Leafs’ home date Saturday against Boston. Phaneuf is skating hard in drills but won’t be back for a week or two.

“We miss Dion a lot,” said goalie Jonas Gustavsson. “He’s a great player and a great leader, but we’ve got a lot of good D-men who can step up and play well while he is gone.”

And there is the conundrum. Who is at fault when an injury necessitates inflated minutes for the rest of a defence corps?

Is it the coach’s responsibility when the defence has scored three goals in 24 games?

But here is something to consider. While reporters have dutifully asked Burke about his plans for Wilson, no columnist or high profile beat writer has called for Wilson’s firing. No one.

The chatter instead has come from patrons who are, of course, perfectly entitled to pin blame on a coach whose teams won 34 and 30 games and are now on pace to win 27.

“You don’t like to hear it,” Wilson said of the “Fire Wilson” chants during Thursday’s 5-0 loss to Edmonton,” but it’s par for the course. The fans have a right to say what they want.”

There is a hierarchy of blame when a team loses. Harry Neale used to tell a joke about a new coach who finds three envelopes in his desk marked ‘open in case of losing.’ Hard times eventually found the coach and he reached for the first envelope.

“Blame the media,” it said.

The losing continued. “Blame the players,” said the second.

The losing continued. The coach opened the final envelope.

“Prepare three more envelopes.”

But there is plenty of evidence to take Burke at his word when he says there is plenty of blame to go around and that ultimately, it stops at his desk. Francois Beauchemin and particularly Mike Komisarek, signed off the free agent market to bolster the blue line have been disappointing. While you can make plenty of arguments that building a team through the draft is far from the only game plan, the Oilers team that pasted the Leafs on Thursday seemed to have benefitted from the idea.

The fact is Tyler Bozak looked ready for prime time last year but has regressed. Phaneuf was aiming for 20 goals and did not have any in 11 games before being hurt.  Who to blame for Kristopher Versteeg’s slow start most likely due to a Stanley Cup hangover or Carl Gunnarsson’s sophomore slump? And where are the mobs of people who wanted Nazem Kadri promoted now that he will be mostly be seen on the fourth line and spotted on the power play?

Never mind who would succeed Wilson should the fans get their way. That’s another question altogether and a daunting one.

One thing is true: Occasionally a coaching change can dramatically turn the direction of a franchise.

But here’s the caveat: The bump almost invariably comes when the team is grossly underachieving and wasting Grade A talent.

Bruce Boudreau succeeded Glen Hanlon who won six of 21 games in the 2007-2008 season. The former Leaf led the club to 37 more wins and a playoff spot. That turn of events was helped immeasurably by the presence of Alexander Ovechkin who scored 65 goals. Mike Green garnered 18 more.

They gave Dan Bylsma the key to the Pittsburgh Penguins 57 games into the 2008-2009 season. He thanked management by piloting the Pens to the Stanley Cup.

Peter Laviolette came to the Carolina Hurricanes in 2003-2004 and led the club to an unlikely Stanley Cup win the following year.  Last year in his rookie season in Philly he got into the playoffs by virtue of a shootout and directed his team into the Stanley Cup finals.

Those teams featured Evgeni Malkin, Marc-Andre Fleury and Sidney Crosby, Rod Brind’Amour, Glen Wesley and Eric Staal. Bylsma and Laviolette had help.

Larry Robinson took over the New Jersey Devils from Robbie Ftorek with eight games to go in 2000. He too led his team to a Stanley Cup. Scott Stevens, Martin Brodeur, Jason Arnott, Alexander Mogilny, Scott Niedermayer and Brian Rafalski contributed a bit as well.

The vast majority of coaching changes have failed because the vast majority of coaches inherit something less than Stanley Cup calibre teams.

And surely no one mistakes this edition of the Leafs for potential Stanley Cup timber. Nor can you argue about Wilson’s resume. Only six more coaches, three of them in the Hall of Fame, have won more games.

“If the players’ aren’t executing the game plan, how do you blame the coach?” said goalie J.S. Giguere.

It’s a question that won’t go away until there is no blame left to hand out.
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