Wilson better win early

Maple Leafs coach Ron Wilson tees off at the Leafs & Legends Charity Golf Classic held at the...

Maple Leafs coach Ron Wilson tees off at the Leafs & Legends Charity Golf Classic held at the Rattlesnake Point Golf Club in Milton, Ont., Sep 6, 2011. (ERNEST DOROSZUL/QMI Agency)

LANCE HORNBY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 2:06 AM ET

MILTON, ONT. - The last thing the young and impressionable Maple Leafs need next month is a coach on the firing line.

Brian Burke has reluctantly put his pal Ron Wilson on the hot seat by not offering an extension heading into 2011-12. Though the general manager has always been loathe to make a mid-season bench change in his previous NHL stops, he has never experienced the fan and media maelstrom that would kick up in these parts if Wilson’s Leafs stumble out of the gate yet again.

The Leafs might indeed get edged out of the playoffs by the time April rolls around, which might speak to an improved and tighter Eastern Conference than anything Wilson can control, but another agonizing autumn such as last year would make Bay St. a cauldron for the general manager and coach.

Burke had to tread carefully where extending Wilson was concerned, based on three straight years out of the playoffs and the uncertainty above him in the board room. Control of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment could change hands soon, while Burke will be definitely under a new president and CEO when Richard Peddie retires in December. After three springs of dark playoff dates at the ACC under his watch and six overall, the GM made some bold moves that should address the lack of depth, while ordering Wilson to replace two assistant coaches.

Burke will have little ammunition to bail out Wilson if things sour again, but skated around the contract question on Tuesday and without making any grandstand playoff predictions, expressed belief that first-half consistency would make the coaching question a moot point.

“If anyone here doubts my loyalty to Ron Wilson, based on the number of times the guys in this (media) group have screamed at me to fire him ... I think I can safely say I’ve done the right thing by Ron. I do think he is the right coach for this group and if we have the start we want, we will address his contract situation right away. I didn’t think I had to extend him to show my loyalty. I think I’ve done that time and again.”

The Leafs were a deceiving 4-0-1 to start last season, but were just about toast by Christmas. Right on schedule, they started a second-half rally, a peculiar feature of their post-lockout behaviour. Their record is 93-63-24 after Feb. 1, numbers not only good enough for the playoffs if applied during a full 82-game season, but likely home ice advantage, too.

However, after last year’s October tease, there must be tangible results. They play just twice in the first two weeks, a blessing if they do well, or a curse should they lose badly to bitter division rivals Montreal and Ottawa and then endure their seven days off held up to ridicule. At least there are plans to get the team out of town for bonding purposes during that unusually long holiday that bridges five straight home games to begin the schedule.

Wilson, back in the Toronto spotlight for the first time since mid-April and fresh from a get-together with his new-look staff, was in good spirits on Tuesday.

“I feel very comfortable,” he insisted. “We have competition in goal, on defence and up front. Because of the way the schedule is, training camp will be a little different this year. We’ll try to get down to our (23-man) team as quickly as possible.

“The emphasis for people on the bubble will be knowing they have to be ready right off the bat. (Centre) Timmy Brent was on our team last year, but he wasn’t even pencilled in (this time last year).”

The Leafs begin training camp at the MasterCard Centre on Sept. 16 and jump into a busy exhibition schedule just a couple of days later.

“The first three games will be a pretty mixed lineup,” Wilson said. “We play just about five games in a week. But for the last three games, I want to be down to a manageable number. You have to keep some people around for waivers and those types of situations, but for the last three games, I want to have a pretty good idea about the 23 guys and the last few who are battling for a spot.”

Wilson projected no surprises as far as the top three lines are concerned, as long as Tim Connolly stays healthy and first-line centre and Tyler Bozak adjusts to third-line duty. Matthew Lombardi’s projected recovery will help the depth in the middle and it’s hoped Nazem Kadri can hang on to a third-line wing role, leaving some hungry kids to battle for fourth-line roles.

“We are leaving one forward spot open, whether that’s Matt Frattin. Joe Colborne, Nazem, or whomever,” Burke said. “Philippe Dupuis is in the hunt. Other than that, we think we’ve filled the holes, but we’ll find out.

It’s the most depth and size we’ve had on the back end, but we think we’ve made some critical additions up front in Tim and Matthew.”

A total of 16 points separated seven teams from sixth to 13th in the East last year. The Carolina Hurricanes were ninth with 91 points, six up on the Leafs and the New York Rangers were the last playoff team with 93.

“We think there are couple of catchable teams,” Burke said. “I’m not going to name them — no reason to start with bulletin board material before the season even begins — but we think there are catchable teams.”

As long as the Leafs aren’t trying to catch too many and too late.

lance.hornby@sunmedia.ca


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