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Northeast: Burke, Wilson don't sugar coat it

by John McGourty
Toronto Maple Leafs General Manager Brian Burke and coach Ron Wilson don't pull any punches when discussing their players. They also are getting their message across through the media, undermining the sense of security that many Maple Leafs have had in recent seasons.

Many Toronto fans feel that sense of security was unwarranted, but the organization lacked the depth to make changes.

These days are different. Jason Blake, Vesa Toskala and Nik Antropov have all been called out in the media. Burke also let it be known that he's contacted every other NHL GM and told them his only untouchables are Luke Schenn, John Mitchell and Mikhail Grabovski, according to a published report.

Then, Wilson frosted Grabovski by telling him to use his linemates more, that hockey's "not a one-on-five game."

Wilson has ridden Blake like a quarter horse this season, going to the whip right out of the gate. It hasn't been fun for Blake, but he's only eight points off last season's scoring totals, and he's plus-6. In his last 15 games, Blake has 11 goals and 10 assists and is plus-7.

Toskala required an MRI on his ailing hip this week and the test required the use of a dye that would make playing uncomfortable. So, the Maple Leafs promoted Justin Pogge again, but didn't exactly lay out a welcome mat.

"He has not earned the right to be here," Burke said on a radio broadcast. "We are force-feeding this kid into the NHL. We need some kind of push on our starting goaltending, some realistic alternative. Our coaches seem reluctant to go to Cujo (backup Curtis Joseph). I'm not throwing rocks at the coaches and certainly not at Cujo. But this has to push Vesa to show him there is an alternative."

Wow, one arrow, four dead.

It gets better:

"We have to see what we have with this young man. He has not dominated at the AHL level. He has not earned this," Burke said. "He's big, he's athletic, he's competitive. He's got a chance to be a starter in this league. We're going to have to force-feed him a little bit. I like this kid."

Imagine if he didn't.

"If were in solid contention for playoff spot, we wouldn't be doing this," Burke said. "We decided to give him a certain number of games, we're going to plug him in, we're going to tell him when he's going back. We're going to announce to the world he hasn't earned it so there are no unrealistic expectations on him. We don't want to ruin him by rushing him. This kid's got a chance, and we want to find out what we have."

That's fair. Too many young goalies have been ruined by being thrown to the wolves. It's good Burke lowered expectations.

Nik Antropov will be a free agent this summer. He'd like a new contract and to stay in Toronto.

"From my take, at this point, I don't see any reason to put a new contract offer on the table here," Burke said on the radio last week. "I think that this might be time for a change of scenery for Nik Antropov.  I don't think Nik's play has merited that discussion to this point."

Antropov has contributed 2 goals and 2 assists and is plus-1 in the four games since being criticized.

"I think he has played well since I questioned his play," said Burke. "That's not why I did it. I just had enough with the way the team was playing."

Wilson was asked Feb. 12 if Jeremy Williams was about to be sent down to the AHL Toronto Marlies -- he was -- and replied, "I think in the next week or two you'll probably see somebody get called up who has played well in the minors and you want to reward those guys. You don't want people in your organization, especially on a team like us that's not a very good team right now, you want to make sure that they feel they have a chance."

Burke was asked by USA Today's Kevin Allen how long it would take for him to reshape the Toronto lineup to his liking.

"I don't put a time frame on it, but the answer is as soon as humanly possible," Burke replied.

One Toronto player caught a compliment recently.

"I like this guy. Bet on him staying," Burke said of puck-moving defenseman Tomas Kaberle.


That didn't take long -- The Montreal Canadiens announced they would leave second-leading scorer Alex Kovalev behind on their road trip to Washington Wednesday and Pittsburgh Thursday. General Manager Bob Gainey said, "The team has no need of his services the way he's currently playing. He's tired and he isn't playing with any emotion."

Kovalev is not suspended and he will be paid, Gainey said, adding the two will talk again Saturday before the Canadiens host the Senators at the Bell Centre at 3 p.m. ET.

Kovalev had a great year last season, the second-best of his career, when he had 35 goals and 49 assists. He has 13 goals and 26 assists this season. He hasn't scored a goal in his last 10 games, posting 5 assists while going minus-8.

Gainey made it clear that Kovalev is expected to be the team scoring leader while playing with enthusiasm and determination. He's failing in all those categories, according to Gainey.

"He's the kind of player who's judged on his production, how many goals he's scored, how many points he's scored," Gainey said. "That's the bottom line for a player like him. How he gets there is the place where the confusion is.

"To score goals and help others score goals, you have to do a lot of different things to make that happen. When production is not happening, to stay on task, to do the small, mundane, mandatory things to help the team is a harder thing for some players than others. But I have to say if he wasn't doing those and he had twice as many points as he has now, we probably wouldn't be standing here."

Asked if he was looking to trade Kovalev, Gained responded, "Nobody's called me yet ... this is the trading season."

The startling decline of the Canadiens' power play has been a big factor in their struggle this season. The Canadiens led the NHL in power-play efficiency the past two seasons but rank 25th this season with 16.1 percent efficiency.

To remedy the problem, Gainey acquired veteran offensive defenseman Mathieu Schneider and a 2009 conditional draft pick for a second-round pick in 2009 and a third-round pick in 2010. Schneider has 216 goals and 501 assistsin 1,241 NHL games, dating to 1988.

The Canadiens used the 44th pick in the 1987 Entry Draft to select Schneider, who had 63 goals and 136 assists in 5 1/2 seasons for the Canadiens before leaving 14 years ago. Schneider was a member of the Canadiens' 1993 Stanley Cup championship team, with Carbonneau and assistant coach Kirk Muller.

Northeast still strong -- While on statistics, the Northeast Division continues to perform well against all other divisions. The Northeast is 110-77-31 against Eastern Conference teams (including themselves); 35-18-11 against the Atlantic; 35-29-9 against the Southeast. The Northeast is 33-29-7 against the Western Conference; 10-8-5 against the Central; 13-13-1 versus the Northwest and 10-8-1 against the Pacific.

The Bruins also lead the NHL with a 21-6-4 road record, a League-low 2.16 goals-against average and 1.54 goals-for ratio in five-on-five play. They rank fifth with a 19-4-4 home record, 3.33 goals per game and 22.8 percent power-play efficiency.

No other Northeast team outscores opponents, five-on-five.

Boston coach Claude Julien runs a responsible bench. The Bruins have the third-fewest penalty minutes, 241, this season and are tied for the League lead with only three bench minors.

Despite their early-season struggles, the Ottawa Senators rank sixth with 83.5 percent penalty-killing efficiency and 11th with 2.73 goals against. Every aspect of the Senators has been under the microscope this season but these two defensive statistics indicate the major problems lay elsewhere.

News and notes -- Former Toronto Maple Leafs forward Kyle Wellwood, now with the Vancouver Canucks, was called for high-sticking Tuesday against Calgary in the Canucks' 4-3 shootout victory. Wellwood was criticized in Toronto for a lack of grit. Tuesday's penalty was his first since April 11, 2006. ... The Hurricanes retired Glen Wesley's No. 2 before the Bruins' game. Wesley's 1994 departure from Boston caused a major rift between fans and management. Wesley played another 13 years and led Carolina to the 2006 Stanley Cup. The Bruins observed the ceremony from their bench, rather than wait in the dressing room. "This organization thrives on class," said Julien. "He's one of our former players, and in our case, I think it's important for us to be out there." Wesley shook hands with Bruins defenseman Aaron Ward, another leader on the Hurricanes' 2006 Stanley Cup champions. ... Patrice Bergeron scored his first goal since Nov. 21 in the Carolina game. It's also his first goal since his second concussion within a year, suffered Dec. 20 in an earlier game with Carolina. ... The Senators captured nine of a possible 10 points in their last five games.

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