September 21, 2010
Ugly hockey works
By STEVE SIMMONS, QMI Agency
Why not trap?
It worked for the late Roger Neilson, one of the most revered coaches in Maple Leaf history, who is fondly remembered for all his success in this city.
Why not suck the life out of every hockey game with defensive presence?
It worked for the great Pat Burns, maybe the most revered Leafs coach since the Punch Imlach Stanley Cup years.
If you asked the average Leafs fan, most of whom remember wins more than they remember how they were accomplished, the Neilson years and the Burns years were indeed special.
Only people don't remember that it was a sharp commitment to defence, to ugly hockey, riding a few stars, that worked for those Leafs teams.
They don't remember how often Neilson's teams iced the puck or Burns' teams banged it off the glass.
All of this brings us to the uncharted abyss that is the current Maple Leafs team.
When Ron Wilson was hired as the 27th coach in Leafs history, there was great concern about how he would handle all that was Toronto hockey and almost no concern about his coaching credentials.
But now, as Year Three of the Wilson experiment muddles on, no one is about to confuse the Wilson years with anything Neilson or Burns accomplished in their best Toronto seasons.
Both were defensive masters: Burns took over a 67-point team and made it a 99-point team in his first very first year. Neilson inherited an 81-point team and elevated it to a 92-point team in his first year, cutting down on the goals against by 48 in his very first year.
That's the kind of impact a great coach can have on teams that aren't necessarily great.
That's the kind of impact that has been lacking from Wilson's two seasons in Toronto, and to be fair, he has operated under far more trying and complicated circumstances.
Before Wilson arrived, the Leafs were a 91-point team out of the playoffs. Wilson hasn't been near 91 points in either season in Toronto. Last year, the 29th-place Leafs finished with 74 points.
Unlike Burns and Neilson, both of whom cut down goals against significantly in their first years on the job, Wilson's Leafs went from 260 goals against to 293 in his first season of work.
A lack of commitment to defence, and Vesa Toskala in goal, can do that for you. Wilson did cut the goals against down last season from 293 to 267 -- a drop of 26. But that still ranked 29th in the NHL.
Wilson needs to reduce goals against by another 40 this season for the Leafs to have any real playoff consideration.
And as much as both Wilson and general manager Brian Burke are students of history -- and appreciative of all that is Maple Leaf -- they won't go the Neilson-Burns way.
"Philosophically, it goes against us," Wilson said.
"We're not going to do that. We just have to play better defensively ... I don't know if (trapping) is going to get us where we need to go. Playing the neutral-zone trap and squeezing the life out of every game, that goes against what Brian and I believe in."
And that goes against what Neilson and Burns believed in.
"It's not entertaining," harumphed Burke, a trap hater.
"You can dumb this game down and make it successful. We could have five guys stand in front of our net. But we're in the entertainment business. I believe that our goals against can come down with improved goaltending and better defensive play.
"And yes, I care deeply about our (Leafs) history. But those two, Burns and Neilson, were defensive-oriented coaches. Both of those guys, I admire. Both guys I have or have had good relationships with. It's just not my cup of tea (trapping).
"First and foremost, I'm in the entertainment business. I make no bones about that.
"We do not trap. We hit in all three zones. We trade chances. We fight. I like the style Ron plays.
"I need people to feel that the team is a good investment on nights we win and on nights we don't."
From Feb. 1 on last season, after J.-S. Giguere and Dion Phaneuf became Leafs, the Leafs' goals against dropped to playoff standards, and the team played at 91-point pace.
Those are the only promising numbers of Wilson's first two seasons in Toronto.
This year must be an upgrade year or his last year.
Roger Neilson and Pat Burns were both fired in or after playoff seasons.
Wilson hasn't been there yet.