Wilson's neck on the line now

Maple Leafs head coach Ron Wilson speaks to the media at the MasterCard Centre in Toronto, Ont.,...

Maple Leafs head coach Ron Wilson speaks to the media at the MasterCard Centre in Toronto, Ont., Jan. 2, 2012. (MICHAEL PEAKE/QMI Agency)

Terry Koshan, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 1:15 AM ET

TORONTO - Ron Wilson has 20 games to save his job.

If the Maple Leafs fail to pull themselves out of the slump that has seen them lose eight of their past nine games and wind up missing the playoffs, Wilson’s tenure as head coach should end.

The Leafs will play host to the Florida Panthers on Tuesday at the Air Canada Centre and were three points out of a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, though a Winnipeg Jets victory over the Edmonton Oilers on Monday night would have put the Leafs five out.

The Leafs don’t control their own destiny. They’re not going to go on a run of 10 or 12 consecutive victories, and they’re going to need the teams ahead of them to lose hockey games.

It’s not an enviable position in which they find themselves.

Another spring without the playoffs would represent four cracks at it for Wilson, and that’s enough. Coaches in other cities would have had much shorter leashes, but general manager Brian Burke, until this season, didn’t think he had provided the right kind of players for Wilson to win.

Now, he has. Burke indicated as much during a radio interview last week and when he did nothing on trade deadline day, he made it clear to Wilson and his players that he has confidence in them to get the leaking ship back in calm waters.

Okay, it’s wrong to say Burke did nothing. Big winger Carter Ashton has potential and could well be a Maple Leaf in the next season or two. Defenceman Keith Aulie was dealt to Tampa in the exchange as Burke and his staff think Korbinian Holzer will soon be ready to become a regular contributor on the blue line.

But there’s no help coming now.

Adding a first-round draft pick at the expense of Luke Schenn, Clarke MacArthur, Nikolai Kulemin or Mikhail Grabovski wouldn’t have aided the playoff push.

And Burke could have overpaid for a goalie, but he didn’t, and should be commended for that.

It’s true that Wilson can’t do anything about the goaltending, other than keep sending one of James Reimer or Jonas Gustavsson out there and hoping like hell one of them starts to stop the puck with consistency.

Yet fingering the netminding for the Leafs’ recent ills is short-sighted, as this is a club that never will be confused with the top defensive outfits in the National Hockey League. If the goaltenders are going to be asked to be better, then the defensive zone coverage also has to improve.

Put it all on the players if you want, but Wilson has to bear part of the responsibility. Everyone shares when the team is not ready to play in any game, and it’s a problem that has been happening too often to put the blame on one specific area.

The Leafs could have used some more experience during the regular season, as they often are the youngest team in the NHL. But Wilson himself has said the Leafs are past the point where age is a factor.

Wilson guided the team through some injuries to significant players, but no matter who has been in the lineup, consistency has been slippery.

Now that the Leafs are healthy enough that no integral players are sitting out with injuries, there are no excuses.

Wilson will coach in his 1,400th NHL game on Tuesday, tying him with Pat Quinn for fourth on the league’s career list. When Wilson steps behind the bench in Chicago on Wednesday night, only three men — Scotty Bowman, Al Arbour and Dick Irvin — will have done it more than him. That’s an accomplishment that Wilson can brag about until his last day on Earth, as he should.

And if Wilson can coach the Leafs to a playoff spot, more power to him. Keep him.

But longevity shouldn’t give Wilson, who has an extension through next season, another shot in 2012-13 if the ACC is dark and empty in April. All good things, or, in this case, mediocre, come to an end.

terry.koshan@sunmedia.ca

twitter.com/koshtorontosun

 


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