Repairing Wilson's damage to Schenn's development

Toronto Maple Leafs' Luke Schenn fights Ottawa Senators' Nick Foligno during the second period of...

Toronto Maple Leafs' Luke Schenn fights Ottawa Senators' Nick Foligno during the second period of their NHL hockey game in Ottawa March 17, 2012. (REUTERS/Blair Gable)

Steve Simmons, QMI AGENCY

, Last Updated: 8:11 PM ET

TORONTO - The hockey damage Ron Wilson left behind is found almost everywhere but nowhere is it more profound than in the person of Luke Schenn.

Wilson said too much to Schenn, or not enough, depending on the time or circumstance. Too often at the wrong moment, in accusatory tones, stripping away at what might have been left of the young defenceman’s persona and confidence.

Schenn won’t say this because he’s too polite but there came a point in the relationship with Wilson where coach no longer trusted player and player no longer trusted or believed in the coach.

“I don’t want to get too involved or throw anyone under the bus,” said Schenn in a lengthy interview Thursday. “But, um, at times, there’s not always communication and when there was communications, maybe (the wrong kind)...

“Every coach has a different personality ... There’s a time and place when a guy needs to be ripped on a little bit. Every coach is different and you’ve got to know your players and handle them differently.”

Without exactly saying so, what Schenn indicated is that he and Wilson rarely spoke, and when they did it was too often in critical or accusatory tones, and more often than he would care to admit he was embarrassed in front of his own team. You hack away at something long enough — you end up partially destroying it.

This is as close as a tight-mouthed, slightly nervous Schenn will come to criticism of any kind. Others around him, more protective of a much ballyhooed player heading in the wrong direction, are upset with what has happened to the Maple Leafs’ highest first-round draft pick of the past 23 years. For so many reasons, coach, player, persona, his own sensitivity, the spectre that is Toronto hockey, Schenn has yet to develop in the manner a high pick is expected to develop. From his draft year, Steven Stamkos has grown into hockey’s greatest goal scorer; Alex Pietrangelo has become the best young defenceman on the best regular season team in hockey; Drew Doughty has already played in one Olympic Games and will play in more. And of those defencemen chosen after him — Tyler Myers has already been a rookie of the year, Erik Karlsson may win the Norris Trophy this season.

And for Schenn, 22, it has been one stride forward over four NHL seasons, two strides back. Some progress made, then failure. And in between far too much frustration. If a defenceman’s value to his team can be determined by how much a coach believes in him — and trusts him with on-ice minutes assigned — Schenn is seventh on a Leaf team that dresses six most nights. His 15 minutes, 59 seconds a night, that’s his average, have marked him as dispensable, where historically everything else about should indicate otherwise.

“I don’t control the minutes,” said Schenn, who doesn’t completely understand the fall from grace that is translated by those numbers. “I’m not going to sit here and complain. That’s pointless.” He doesn’t see himself as a sixth or seventh defencemen. That much he still believes in. That may not be what his paycheque reads, nor where he sees himself in the future. “I don’t feel that way,” he said. But so far there is a game of trust between new coach Randy Caryle and Schenn that needs to play itself out.

Carlyle sees value in Schenn, just not right now. In the most recent dreadful loss at home, Carlyle played five defencemen more than 20 minutes each. Schenn played just over 13 minutes. In the nine games since Carlyle inherited the team, Schenn has never played more than 16 minutes, 24 seconds. That’s spare part numbers for a player who was brought here and paid to be a difference maker.

But so far, Carlyle and Schenn appear to be on the same page. Schenn appreciates the direct instruction from Carlyle and staff. They have asked him to rebuild his game in several areas. Between now, the end of this season and the beginning of next year, assuming he isn’t dealt elsewhere in the summer, Schenn will have to make the steps his coach is asking for.

Carlyle wants his practice habits to improve. He wants more intensity from Schenn. He wants him to have a “snarly attitude.”

“He has to have physical presence on the ice,” said Carlyle. “He has to be a defenceman who is going to be physical first, take the body, be hard to play against, more of an agitator.“

Carlyle says Schenn has to improve his “good first-pass” ability, which seemed a strength of his as a rookie but has fallen back as his confidence has eroded.

“I’ve talked to him. There are some areas that I’m going to demand out of him over the summer,” said Carlyle. “I think it’s important. I don’t think he has an issue with it. We’re asking him to be more of a penalty killer, more of a defensive defenceman, get pucks to the net, I want him involved in the game. He wants to be more involved in the game more than he has been.”

What Schenn admires about Carlyle thus far is his clarity. There is no guessing with the new coach. He tells you precisely what he demands of you, and then the onus is on the player to get it done. There is little left unsaid, little to the imagination. To date, there has been no game playing of any kind between Carlyle and his Leaf players.

“Randy is doing a great job being positive (with the players) when everybody else is being so negative,” said Schenn. “I still think and I believe that I’m going to be a top defensive defenceman in this league that can play big minutes against the other teams’ top lines. I want to be a rock back there.”

But there is much repair work to be done to that rock and Schenn has to distance himself from the personal on-ice difficulty of this season.

“I’m extremely pissed...” said Schenn, when asked to evaluate his season. His coach likes that. “Our whole team is pissed. I have to be a better player. Our team has to be better. We all have to be better.”

steve.simmons@sunmedia.ca

twitter.com/simmonssteve


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