Leafs GM nears tipping point

LANCE HORNBY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:27 AM ET

RALEIGH N.C. -- To paraphrase Ron Wilson, when is someone gonna get mad around here?

It's not a shock the Maple Leafs are a stretch to make the playoffs this year, but who would have thought of them facing virtual elimination before American Thanksgiving? Or being a loss away from last place overall Thursday?

It seems the millions doled out on player salary, building upgrades and a bulging masthead of coaches and hockey office execs would be better spent on compensating traumatized fans for another season of mental cruelty.

The Leafs reach the quarter pole here Thursday and if the pall hnaging over practice and the world weary looks in the dressing room are a harbinger, then they will be 30th to the Hurricanes’ 29th by the end of Thursday’s clash of the Titanics.

General manager Brian Burke stuck his neck out for the players this year, now he’s about ready to put a few of theirs on the chopping block.

“If we don’t start winning, we have two options,” said Burke, who was back in Toronto Wednesday. “One, we make a trade and if I could make one that puts us in the playoffs I would. But they’re hard to make (in the salary cap world) and I think there have only been three of them around the league so far this season.

“Two, we send somebody on a one-way down and call up the kids. That’s the next step. We waive them and send them down and if we lose ‘em (on a waiver claim), we lose ‘em.”

Like any GM, Burke is also monitoring what some mothballed free agents such as Miroslav Satan are up to, but says none are being considered right now.

A couple of demotions would gladden the hearts of many fans, as well as hold Burke to his pre-season promise to do just that. It would also be consistent with coach Wilson’s oft-stated vow to rid the Leafs of their ‘culture of entitlement’ where safe jobs are concerned.

However, it would also be admitting the playoff dream has passed the point of no return for the fifth straight year. Now that one got Burke mad.

“Everyone talks about playoffs like it’s a dirty word. I never promised we’d make it this year, but if that’s not your goal every year in this business, do something else, go drive a truck.

“But if we’re going to struggle, let’s do it with the kids (such as Viktor Stalberg, Tyler Bozak and Christian Hanson). Who knows, they couldn’t score less (than some current veterans). Right now we have one forward (Phil Kessel) doing it.”

Wilson and his staff must take some heat here, almost three months into the season including camp and just 28 even-strength goals in 19 games. True, he’s only had Kessel seven games, but the right winger has passed more than half the team in goals and points. Jason Blake, Mikhail Grabovski, Nikolai Kulemin and John Mitchell have a combined 10 goals.

Wilson preaches patience, but hasn’t yet let Mitchell or Matt Stajan get comfortable as Kessel’s centre and he can’t get the other lines to click consistently either. When his ill-prepared team gives up the first goal 17 of 19 times, that makes scoring all that harder.

On defence, Wilson moved Garnet Exelby and Jeff Finger in and out of the lineup, but not Luke Schenn, who would either benefit from a game in the stands or at least be getting the same treatment Wilson dished out to young players such as Kulemin last season.

Wilson stiffed the media Wednesday after Tuesday’s 3-2 loss in Ottawa, but Burke took the slings and arrows aimed at his coach.

“I don’t see a failure to communicate on our team. I look at the Calgary game and see us out-hit and out-chance a good team. Most people I talk to understand we’re far better than our record and could just as well be 8-2 in about 10 of them.

“But you could not be pleased at where we are and what we’ve achieved versus what we hoped for. This can not continue.”


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