Late rush proves Quinn critics were right

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:38 AM ET

MONTREAL -- If Pat Quinn thought the late-season surge by his Maple Leafs would save his job, he was wrong.

Instead, it cemented his downfall.

But all indications are that Quinn laboured under no delusions. He knew as soon as the Leafs got hammered in the crucial late-March doubleheader in Montreal that he was a lame-duck coach.

When the team suddenly went into its hottest streak of the season, it proved only what Quinn's critics had been saying all along -- the Leafs had the talent to do better.

The injury that Jason Allison suffered in Montreal forced Quinn to use Matt Stajan at centre, where he probably should have been all along.

But until then, Stajan's talent had never evolved under Quinn, a development that goes back as far as the 2004 playoffs when Quinn opted to dress Tie Domi ahead of Stajan, thereby leaving Stajan questioning his worth.

In the past few weeks, Jean-Sebastien Aubin was virtually unbeatable in the net. Again, this exposed Quinn's predilection to stick with veterans who were not playing as well as they once did.

In Montreal, Jose Theodore was benched and traded. In Toronto, Ed Belfour was allowed to stagger out game after game, one mediocre performance following another.

Far too late in the season, Mikael Tellqvist was given a chance, mostly because Belfour had back problems.

When Tellqvist was found wanting, in came Aubin. It now appears that he was the man for the job, but by the time he got his opportunity, the obstacles were insurmountable. The Leafs were too far behind to get back into the race.

There are other examples, but there is no need to belabour the point. Even Quinn's supporters admit that he favours his veteran players.

Look at it from the point of view of general manager John Ferguson. You want to bring up a crop of youngsters, and you've got a coach who sticks with veterans long past their best-before date. It's not exactly the ideal situation.

So, it appears that the team now will turn to Paul Maurice, even though he is far from being a unanimous choice of the Leafs' front-office staff. No one denigrates the job Maurice has done with the farm team. But there is some doubt as to his abilities at the NHL level.

For one thing, in his previous tenure with the Carolina Hurricanes, he had a losing record. Perhaps that was a function of the team's lack of talent. Then again, perhaps it wasn't.

But an American Hockey League coach is primarily a teacher. An NHL coach has to be a winner.

He has to match lines against the best bench coaches in the world. He has to motivate jaded veterans who have seen a dozen coaches come and go. He has to devise tactics that will give his team an edge that it can't get through pure talent. He even has to be able to deal with a demanding media corps, not necessarily because the media matter in themselves, but because of the potentially divisive turmoil they can stir up if not handled properly.

Can Maurice do all these things? Some in the front office say he can. Others are not so sure.

SWEAR BY HIM

There are many Marlies players who swear by him, and say that he has made them much better. But at the NHL level, there's not a lot of time for teaching, and what teaching there is usually gets done by the assistant coaches. (At least, it should get done by the assistant coaches, which is one of the reasons Rick Ley was fired along with Quinn yesterday.)

Still, we do know that Ferguson is proud of the youngsters he has brought into the organization. And we know with certainty -- because he has told us so and GMs never lie -- that he intends to build through the draft.

So it may be that Maurice is exactly what the team needs. Clearly, as far as Ferguson is concerned, it isn't Quinn.


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