Quinn hanging by a thread

STEVE SIMMONS -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:15 AM ET

There are those inside the hockey world -- some of them general managers, some of them coaches -- who truly believe Pat Quinn would have been fired by now if the optics weren't so terrible.

If he didn't happen to be the coach of Canada's Olympic hockey team.

Some who know John Ferguson quite well wonder if Quinn still would be running the Leafs if this were just another season, if the Olympics weren't just a short few days away.

And that, by itself, raises all kinds of issues in this Maple Leafs season of playing teeter-totter.

Quinn actually is a convenient target in his seventh season coaching the Leafs. He always has been successful. He always has found a way. He is confounding and controlling and forever providing opportunities to those who don't deserve it.

And yet he almost always seems to end up on the winning side of the equation.

Only now, little of his past magic is working. His egalitarian ways -- everybody plays, even those who haven't earned their place -- may have cost him a victory Saturday night against the Montreal Canadiens. On a 4-on-3 penalty kill in overtime, Quinn elected to use rookie Andy Wozniewski on defence.

This wasn't a good choice.

It was the kind of choice he had made in the past, the kind he would get away with, the kind that mystically seemed to work in his favour. But it blew up on the Leafs, the way too many of Quinn's decisions have blown up this season.

It isn't that he has changed in any way. He is the same coach, same guy, same style, same system, same beliefs, he has always been. He is the same coach, minus the kind of on-ice protection he has had in the past.

For his first four seasons in Toronto, he had Curtis Joseph in goal almost every night. For the next two seasons, he relied almost exclusively on Ed Belfour. In any of those six seasons, with goaltending equipment larger, Quinn was fortunate to have one of the four best goalies in the game playing for him almost every night.

That kind of goaltending makes up for all kinds of team flaws, let alone coaching flaws.

The kind of goaltending the Leafs haven't had in this season of being exposed.

The kind of goaltending that makes a coach a whole lot smarter and more effective than he otherwise may be.

Funny, who would have thought being the Olympic coach now offers the kind of protection that great goaltending once did. Ferguson won't fire a coach who is going to the Olympics in less than two weeks. It would alter his focus, the Olympic focus, it would be too destructive in so many conceivable ways.

But now, the constant of years of Joseph and Belfour has been replaced by a more erratic Belfour, an inconsistent Mikael Tellqvist and a banged-up defence.

It hasn't been a strong combination, not with Bryan McCabe missing his ninth straight game last night, not with a lineup that has rotated which parts have gone missing.

The notion around the league that Ferguson would have fired Quinn by now, or may fire him soon, is curious on its own. Ferguson is still perceived to be a neophyte around the NHL, a general manager in search of reputation. Quinn, for all those who may doubt him, has a track record. A damn fine track record. He has a history, while Ferguson has only begun writing his own.

Firing Quinn now -- or after the Games -- would either be a show of strength or a show of desperate weakness on his behalf. You choose which side you're on.

But the suggestion now, that this is more than just media speculation, that hockey people believe change is imminent with the Leafs, is fascinating on its own.

Pat Quinn may come home with gold from Turin, but will there be a job waiting for him?

And for how much longer?

MEA CULPA

Every Sunday, I end my column with the rhetorical question 'And hey, whatever became of ...?' I like to pick a name from the past, usually an obscure athlete who wasn't necessarily a star, who might tweak a memory or two.

It's all supposed to be in good fun, but this week I messed up.

Former NHL defenceman Bill Nyrop died of inoperable cancer in January 1996.

I should have known that.

Heartfelt apologies to the Nyrop family and to anyone else who might have been offended by my error in research.

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