Burke bravado backfires

LANCE HORNBY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:56 AM ET

What do the Maple Leafs' playoff hopes and Balloon Boy have in common?

Both stories have a large measure of hot air and a whiff of hoax about them.

This is not to say Brian Burke and Ron Wilson aren't genuine in attempts to make this hockey team better. Imagine one day a seasoned Jonas Gustavsson in goal, a defence that works on the same page and core forwards that include Phil Kessel, plus Nazem Kadri, Viktor Stalberg, Tyler Bozak, Christian Hanson, sprinkled with veterans such as Niklas Hagman and Matt Stajan.

Had general manager Burke and coach Wilson painted that long-range picture, while sticking to the tenets of last year's mantra of a patient rebuild, this awful 0-6-1 start might be perceived in a better light. Looking at what Washington and Pittsburgh had accomplished by bottoming out, fans seemed ready to endure another nuclear winter or two for long-term gain.

What mucked up the plan was Burke's bold pronouncements that Big Blue was now back in the playoff hunt, which Wilson had no choice but to endorse.

Neither knew how Vesa Toskala would recover from last year's woes, whether the new defence would mesh and how the offence would function with lack of name forwards and no Kessel until mid-November.

Yes, the Leafs are better, but so, apparently, are 29 other teams.

Toronto's tepid start as well as its badly timed promotion as "Canada's Team," gives the whole club no escape from a wicked fan backlash and more ammo for its detractors.

But Burke and Wilson can't help being proud men used to winning conditions, neither having missed the playoffs in two full consecutive seasons during the past decade.

Both MLSEL and the fans wanted a proven Cup winner running the show to wield a big stick and, in Burke, got a man who beat the rest of the pack to Gustavsson, some college free agents and created a new-look front office with competent hockey men such as David Nonis and Dave Poulin, and a well-rounded coaching staff including goalie guru Francois Allaire. Burke cut the ribbon on a $45-million practice facility, all developments that will be beneficial, just not right away.

But expectations were pumped too high and, yes, some in the media drank the Kool-Aid, too. Burke made much of renewed team toughness -- if only punches equated to points -- and raised stakes further with the Kessel trade for what could turn out to be precious lottery picks.

Now he has to deal with the fallout. The Leafs hit the road this week with the daunting task of winning five games on opposing ice just to get back near .500.

Don't expect Burke and Wilson to backtrack on their statements that the Leafs are a playoff-calibre team. But the standings have deflated those words already.

It's peaches in Atlanta

Washington has Alex Ovechkin, but that other Southeast Division team with the other Russian is doing quite well, thank you very much.

Heading into the first of two head-to-head games against the Caps this week, the Atlanta Thrashers are 4-1 and Ilya Kovalchuk is up to seven goals. Ex-Leaf Nik Antropov had two assists on two Kovalchuk goals Saturday on consecutive shifts.

"I think we have the best team ever in the organization," Kovalchuk said. "Everybody is on the same page, and everybody is working hard to win."

Yesterday, the Thrashers took a bus from Buffalo to Elmira, Ont., to practise in the new arena named after their late teammate Dan Snyder, who was killed in a 2003 car crash. Snyder hoped to help build the arena in his hometown with his NHL earnings, but other NHLers took on the project in his name.

Lucic on the mend

Bruins' Milan Lucic will be out for a few days with a broken right index finger suffered on Friday in Dallas. Lucic, one of the league's best fighters when not tossing his full body mass around, was hurt trying to slam Stephane Robidas. Without him, Boston lost 4-1 in Phoenix on Saturday.

"Right now, the severity of it, we're not 100% sure,'' Boston coach Claude Julien said. "We'll evaluate it with our own doctors once we get home."

Wild child

Speaking of the Bruins, the team dealt winger Chuck Kobasew to the Minnesota Wild last night, in exchange for wingers Craig Weller and Alexander Fallstrom, along with Minnesota's 2011 second-rounder.

Kobasew, had 21 goals and 21 assists in 68 games last season and will give the toothless Wild some much-needed offence.

The week ahead

Martin Brodeur of the New Jersey Devils will attempt to tie Terry Sawchuk's long-standing record of 103 shutouts, now one behind ... New Dallas coach Marc Crawford faces his old L.A. Kings for the first time tonight ... Minnesota, 0-7-1 on the road going back to last season, try to end that streak in St. Louis on Friday.

LANCE.HORNBY@SUNMEDIA.CA


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