Wilson challenges Mitchell

STEVE BUFFERY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 12:00 AM ET

TORONTO - You never know what’s going on in Ron Wilson’s head.

When the Maple Leafs coach is in a good mood, he still does wacky things like threaten to dig a hole and bury a Toronto sports scribe in quick-drying cement — feet up, no less.

And when he’s unhappy with the play of one his players, he’ll continue to refer to said player by said player’s nickname.

Which is strange and uncommon.

When any of my former sports editors were in a happy mood (generally after an afternoon of “strategising” at a local drinkery) I was Beezer. When they were angry, Beezer became something else, sometimes Steve, sometimes another name that starts with an S, but ends with a D.

But there was Wilson on Thursday, calling out veteran centre John Mitchell — laying it on the line, challenging him, warning him — yet constantly referring to the big centre as “Mitchy.”

Seemed a little weird. Still, the message was clear.

“Mitchy, if you look at his plus-minus, hasn’t been very good,” said Wilson, following practice at the MasterCard Centre for Hockey Excellence. “And it’s something that he has to learn to be better at.

“He hasn’t shown that he has the skill to be on the top two lines, so therefore you have to make an adjustment at some point.

Play without the puck

“This year will probably be a big year for Mitchy to learn how to play without the puck,” Wilson continued. “He’s actually a very good penalty killer, but he’s had trouble when it’s five on five (and with) defensive zone coverage. We’re not really sure why. He’s big and he can skate. Timmy Brent, as small as he appears ... his focus has been better than Mitchy’s right now, so he’s earned that spot in the lineup.”

Basically, with two pre-season games left, Brent — who has played most of six seasons in the American Hockey League and only 19 in the NHL — has beaten out the bigger, stronger, younger Mitchell — who has played 136 games for the Leafs — for the job as the team’s third line centre (assuming that Christian Hanson remains the fourth line guy).

Calling it throwing a guy under the bus. But in this case, Wilson is simply trying to show Mitchell how not TO MISS the bus, which the Oakville native is in danger of doing with the regular-season opener less than a week away.

Wilson said Mitchell, who had 23 points in 60 games with the Leafs last season, has to embrace the idea that he is not going to play on the top two lines and that the only way he’s going to grab a regular spot with the Leafs is by accepting the role as a checking-line centre.

“When somebody sees themselves sometimes an offensive player — although they’ve never scored any goals — and then they kind of think: ‘Oh I don’t like this line’, then you often times shoot yourself in the foot,” said Wilson. “(And) that’s the challenge right now for John Mitchell. Is John going to accept that role, and when he does play, play well defensively? Mitchy on (Wednesday) night (in Ottawa), in 7-8 minutes of even strength time, was minus-2.”

A revelation

For many, Brent has been the revelation at camp and in pre-season. He played 33 games for the Marlies last season and one for the Leafs, and was a dark horse to crack the Leafs’ opening-night lineup. But after a summer of intense training, the Cambridge, Ont., native is on the verge of starting the year with the Leafs, probably at the expense of Mitchell. Still, his play has not been a surprise to Wilson.

“We knew what we had in Tim Brent,” said Wilson. “But some other guys haven’t performed as well in that specific role, which is to kill penalties and be part of a shut-down line. That’s not what (Tyler) Bozak or (Mikhail) Grabovski’s skill set is, and it’s certainly not what Nazem Kadri’s skill set is. (So), it’s between him, Mitchell and Hanson.”

Wilson was quick to point out that with injuries and the fact that the team will probably carry two extra players during the season, Mitchell still has a chance to play regularly with the Leafs, if he picks it up.

“Brent could play one game and then Mitchell could go in,” said the coach. “This isn’t quick drying cement — you pour some water in and the cement hardens and that’s it.

“I should do that,” he added, turning to a certain disheveled media hound. “Dig a hole for you. It wouldn’t have to be very deep. And I could put you in with your head down and feet up.”

Funny guy, that Wilsey.


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