Olympics may be saving Wilson from axe

STEVE SIMMONS, QMI AGENCY

, Last Updated: 9:37 AM ET

TORONTO — The only time Brian Burke fired a coach in mid-season came when he called the first 45 games of the 1998-99 season “an unmitigated disaster.”

The coach was Mike Keenan. The team was the Vancouver Canucks. The disaster came from 15 wins in 45 games, and a divided team going nowhere.

Fast forward to today, as the Maple Leafs ready for their 48th game of this unmitigated disaster of a season.

Coach Ron Wilson has 15 wins. His team, depending on who you talk to, and certainly evident by its choppy play on the ice, is divided, showing few tangible signs of improvement and almost certainly going nowhere.

But Burke won’t even consider the matter of firing Wilson. That is a non-starter with him. He is adamant coaching is not the Leafs’ problem. He won’t address the coaching status, except to say it won’t change.

But some NHL insiders will tell you that even if Burke wanted to sack Wilson, he couldn’t possibly fire the U.S. Olympic hockey coach with less than a month to go to the Vancouver Games.

“How do you sell that to Americans?” a U.S.-based hockey man asked Wednesday. “What do you say? We have the best coach possible for Team USA but he’s not the right coach for the Toronto Maple Leafs?”

When does a coach normally get fired in the NHL?

Usually when a team is going lousy, when a team is structurally inept, when there are clear signs that the players have stopped listening or performing — and often after a bad loss at home.

The Leafs, for the record, have lost four games in a row, have two wins in their past 11 games, have made next to no progress with their miserable penalty-kill, are coming off a defeat against the only team in the NHL that happens to be behind them in the standings.

That’s normally when a coach gets fired. When the hometown fans are booing. When progress seems stagnant. That’s how Andy Murray, a very good coach, lost his job and his way in St. Louis.

That’s probably what should happen with the Maple Leafs, were this not an Olympic year, were someone other than Burke making the call, were friendship between GM and coach not an issue.

Another fact about this year’s version of the team: For the fifth consecutive year, the number of wins by the Leafs will diminish. These are the Leafs post-lockout: 41 wins, 40, 36, 34 and now 15 in 47.

After Wednesday, with 34 games remaining, should the Leafs win half their games — which is highly unlikely — they will end the season with 30 wins, which will complete the post-lockout downward spiral and read like a lot of our stock portfolios. If they don’t win 30 games, which is entirely possible, this will represent the fewest wins for the Leafs (lockout year aside) in 20 years.

For his part, Wilson says he doesn’t think about getting fired.

“I’m frustrated that I can’t do more,” he said. “You try and change things. You work on this. You work on that.

“I don’t read the papers. I don’t hang with you guys ... (Getting fired) is the last thing I’ve been thinking about right now. Those decisions are outside what I do, anyway. If I’m not good enough, somebody will come down and tell me.”

Wilson’s qualifications are beyond reproach. So were Andy Murray’s. So are Ken Hitchcock’s in Columbus. Good coaches get fired or are about to get fired when, for whatever reason, their teams stop listening, improving ... or both.

Very recently, a San Jose player was asked about the difference of playing for the Sharks with Wilson coaching and then playing for them after he left. He first complimented Wilson on his knowledge. He then complimented him on his game preparation. Then he referred to him as the most prepared coach he had ever played for.

It was after that he called him a sarcastic ass. Someone who knows what he’s talking about but doesn’t always communicate it effectively.

These days, a lot of the Maple Leafs can understand what that Shark is saying. As they wait for a shoe to drop in this unmitigated disaster of a hockey season.


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