Time running out for Burke, Wilson

Both Burke and Wilson have now had sufficient time to turn the Maple Leafs into a playoff team, and...

Both Burke and Wilson have now had sufficient time to turn the Maple Leafs into a playoff team, and that doesnít mean a Stanley Cup contender necessarily, but as of now both have failed. (QMI AGENCY)

STEVE SIMMONS, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 12:17 PM ET

The expectations of this hockey market have been so beaten down over time that many consider this Maple Leaf season something worth celebrating.

And that, by itself, is sad.

The season may have been about growth, about stirring emotion, about taking a step from near oblivion, about discovery. But in the end, out of the playoffs again, it was not about success. And if the past month or so proved anything, it demonstrated just how much Toronto misses out on without playoff hockey ó how deprived we are, really ó and how ripe the appetite is for a return to Stanley Cup games.

Ron Wilson has missed the playoffs in all three seasons as coach of the Leafs. Word around is he will get a contract extension shortly. I think he should have to make the playoffs at least once before any extension is even considered, but Brian Burke, who is 0-for-21/2 himself in his playoffs attempts in Toronto, is nothing if not loyal and stubborn. Both Burke and Wilson have now had sufficient time to turn the Maple Leafs into a playoff team, and that doesnít mean a Stanley Cup contender necessarily, but as of now both have failed.

The clock is beyond ticking. Wilson and Burke are running out of next years and good will. For Wilson to miss the playoffs a fourth year in a row and for Burke to make it three straight on his watch in April of 2012 should be reason for wondering if either should be retained beyond next season. At this stage, until the playoffs are made, contract extensions should not even be talked about.

If you put aside the emotional ride of the past two months, there is some cold reality the Maple Leafs need to address ó and much of it comes from straight numbers.

- They are 10th best in a less-than-stellar Eastern Conference, 20th out of 30 teams in the NHL.

- They donít score enough goals: Only one of the 16 playoffs will have scored as few goals as the Leafs this season.

- They give up too many goals against: I know, that was before James Reimer, Leafs Nation screams. But with the whole season in perspective, not one of the 16 playoff teams gave up as many goals as the Leafs allowed.

For the Leafs to get to the playoffs, they need to reduce their goals against by at least 20 and increase their goals for by close to the same number. If they donít manage to do that, in whatever form, they will remain on the outside looking in.

The difficulty for Burke, Wilson and staff now is determining what about this season was real and what was late-season mirage. Last season, after the trades for Dion Phaneuf and J-S Giguere, the Leafs played reasonably good hockey as well. From Feb. 1 to the end of the season ó after those deals were made on the last day of January ó the Leafs played at a 93-point pace.

The thinking at the time was, if they played that way this season, that would be enough to get them to the post-season. Had they finished with 93 points, theyíd be entering this final weekend still alive, although assured of nothing. The Leafs will finish the season with fewer than 90 points. They probably need five more points to make the playoffs next year ó 10 more to be taken seriously as a contender.

From Feb. 1 on this year, the Leafs have played at 110-point pace. If you believe Wilson, this was a large building experience for the players. If you take the words of the master builder, Pat Gillick, seriously, nothing that happens in September baseball should ever be believed by a non-contender. The past two months were September baseball for the Leafs. How much of that will translate to next year?

For one thing, I believe in Reimer as the goaltender of the future. There is too much about him to like. But a word of caution: Exactly the same thing was said about Steve Mason after his first excellent season in Columbus. He hasnít had an excellent season since and Columbus hasnít been in the playoff since. As much as we want to say the Leafs have their future in goal well taken care of, Reimer has to go out and do it again.

More from the tangible side, there is one constant of Wilsonís time coaching the Leafs that desperately needs to change ó and thatís the terrible special teams under his watch. It hasnít been one awful year, itís been three. If he coached in the NFL, someone would be screaming, rightfully, for a change in special teams coaches.

The Leafs are 23rd in the NHL in power play with a dreadful 15.9% mark and 27th in the league while short-handed. But broken down further, the statistics are even more troubling. If you subtract short-handed goals against from the Leafs power-play total, they were plus-44 on the season (power play goals minus short-handed goals against.) When compared with the best teams in the league, Vancouver (68), Detroit (60), San Jose (59) there is the 20 goals gone missing that they need to improve upon in the standings.

Itís not much better short-handed. The Leafs allowed more power-play goals against than all but four teams. And when you subtract short-handed goals scored from power-play goals against, the Leafs end up at minus-55. The New York Rangers, in the playoffs, are minus-31 in that area. Pittsburgh is minus-29. Among the teams worse than the Leafs with this number: Columbus, Atlanta and Edmonton.

Without a significant special-teams breakthrough next season, or significant player changes, the Leafs wonít be able to advance to the post-season. This remains an area in which Wilson, or his staff, must be held accountable and under Burkeís watch thus far that hasnít been the case. The Leafs have changed defencemen, forwards and goaltenders in each of Wilsonís three seasons, yet the penalty-killing has remained dismal.

The encouraging part of the Leafs season was the apparent development of players worth building around for the present and the future. It starts with Reimer in goal, then extends to captain Dion Phaneuf leading a reasonable defence that includes Luke Schenn, Keith Aulie, Carl Gunnarsson. Thatís four defencemen, all under the age of 26. Burke insists Mike Komisarek will be back and play a more significant role. Time will tell on that one.

Up front, Phil Kessel had an up and down season without a centre of similar skill and still managed 30 goals. With a more consistent work ethic and a better centre, 40 goals isnít out of the question. Nik Kulemin scored 30 and could reach 35 next year if he starts shooting more. Mikhail Grabovski, for the first time, looks like a legitimate NHL centre. And after that, itís a lot of ifs. Whatís a Joffrey Lupul? Whatís a Clarke MacArthur? What will Nazem Kadri become? Can Tyler Bozak be better? What can Burke do with two first-round choices if he tries to deal them for a player or an earlier pick?

As with most things Maple Leaf, nothing is particularly clear. The last time there was a playoff game in this city, Jeremy Roenick scored on Ed Belfour in overtime and Pat Quinn was coaching the Leafs, Ken Hitchcock was coaching Philadelphia and Reimer was 14 years old. Who knows when the next post-season game will be played?

steve.simmons@sunmedia.ca

twitter.com/simmonssteve


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