By Nicholas J. Cotsonika
The Ron Wilson era is coming to an end, if not now, if and when the Toronto Maple Leafs miss the playoffs yet again. You can see it the way the Leafs are playing, 1-9-1 in their past 11, 10th in the East and falling fast. You can hear it the way the quiet, corporate crowd at the Air Canada Centre loudly chanted Tuesday night: "FI-RE WIL-SON! FI-RE WIL-SON!"
The Leafs were on their way to a 5-3 loss to the Florida Panthers. The Florida freaking Panthers. These are the only two teams that haven't made the playoffs since the 2004-05 lockout, and though the Panthers' drought is four years longer than the Leafs', their general manager, Dale Tallon, tore down the team before the trade deadline last year, hired a new coach in the summer, brought in a bunch of new players and has them in first place in their division.
Meanwhile, after a 5-4 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks on Wednesday night, the Leafs are four points out of a playoff spot. They're only one point ahead of the Tampa Bay Lightning and Buffalo Sabres, whose GMs sold before the deadline this year. The Bolts and Sabres each have a game in hand. Before the Leafs play again Saturday night at Montreal, they could be 12th in the East – though not in the cellar, behind the sellers.
Leafs GM Brian Burke might not fire Wilson now, and not because he's overly loyal to his former Providence College roommate and U.S. Olympic coach. He gave Wilson a one-year extension in December, if only to assure he wouldn't be a lame duck the second half of this season. He has said recently that he is not considering a coaching change and thinks the Leafs have the people in place to turn themselves around.
Burke is an honest, stubborn man. If anything, the howls from the fans and media might make him dig in further. (He declined an interview request Thursday.) But Burke is also realistic. He didn't buy at the trade deadline. Why? Because as he has said many times, he is not trying to make the playoffs, he's trying to have a parade. He didn't sell at the trade deadline, either. Why? Because the long-term plan is still in place.
Would firing Wilson turn around the Leafs immediately? Would hiring Randy Carlyle or Marc Crawford squeak them into eighth in the East? If they make the playoffs, will they have much hope of upsetting the top-seeded New York Rangers no matter who is behind the bench?
No. So let this play out. If Wilson doesn't make the playoffs, let him go and let the new guy start fresh.
The Leafs are not the Edmonton Oilers, at or near the bottom of the league for years, gathering elite talents that could rocket them up the standings at any moment. They're in danger of languishing in limbo, not good enough to be a playoff team, not bad enough to stockpile top draft picks, stuck.
But for years, they were too impatient, trying to make the playoffs at all costs, and at first, Burke was impatient, too. He thought the Leafs were closer than they actually were in September of 2009 and famously acquired Phil Kessel from Boston for two first-round picks and a second-rounder.
And now Burke is being patient. He is building steadily. Though the Panthers have made it look easy, it isn't necessarily easy – and it remains to be seen whether Florida is a flash in the pan in a weak division or built to last.
In early February, Burke said: "We have the second-youngest or third-youngest team in the league. We have depth with the [minor-league affiliate Toronto] Marlies. Everything's going the right way for us. We don't have to make a statement or do something short-term."
Nothing has gone the right way for the Leafs since, but Burke still doesn't have to make a statement or do something short-term. He didn't trade pending unrestricted free agent Mikhail Grabovski before the deadline, but there is a good chance he can re-sign him before July 1. He didn't trade defenseman Luke Schenn, but Schenn is still only 22. He didn't acquire a goaltender, but there were few options available, none good. He could fire Wilson now, but what would that really accomplish, other than giving critics and long-suffering fans some satisfaction?
Save your powder. Get a new coach after the season. Add more talent this summer. Put everyone in a better position to succeed, so whenever the Leafs finally do make the playoffs again, they might have a chance to win.
If the Canucks use Cory Schneider in the playoffs this year, will the Vancouver market freak out a little less than it did last year?
"Possibly," Schneider said. "I don't know, to be honest. They seem to overreact to a lot of things. I'm sure it would be a big deal."
OK. Of course it would be a big deal. Of course Vancouver fans and media would freak. If Schneider plays, that means starting goaltender Roberto Luongo has either gotten hurt or melted down again.
But would Schneider freak out a little less himself? Probably. He said he "maybe experienced some nerves" when he started Game 6 of the Canucks' first-round series against the Chicago Blackhawks last season. He had trouble handling the puck, gave up three goals, suffered a cramp on a penalty shot and had to be relieved by Luongo.
This season the Canucks have used Schneider in some big games, perhaps preparing him for more big games to come. He started Jan. 7 at Boston. He's from Marblehead, Mass., and went to Boston College. But of course, Boston is also where Luongo struggled badly in the Stanley Cup final last year. Schneider beat the Bruins, 4-3. He started Jan. 31 against Chicago. Of course, the Blackhawks have been Luongo and the Canucks' nemesis. Schneider beat them, 3-2.
Schneider won seven straight starts until Tuesday night, and his streak was snapped only by a 2-1 overtime loss to the Phoenix Coyotes. He stopped 34 of 35 shots.
"Obviously I want to be ready," Schneider said. "As I found out last year, I was called upon to start a big game. But you know, I think right now, with the way Lou's playing, if he's good to go, he's going to be the guy. He's proven he can win in the playoffs. He got us that far last year. There's no reason to believe he won't be able to do it again."
Luongo is signed through 2021-22 at a cap hit of $5.33 million. Schneider is a pending restricted free agent with a $900,000 hit. Right now, Schneider might be the best backup goalie in the league, and he seems a prime candidate to be traded in the offseason. But let's see how the playoffs affect his reputation and his value – to teams around the league and to the Canucks, too.
Jeff Skinner returned to the Carolina Hurricanes' lineup Jan. 15. He has played 17 games since, and he has three points in his past two. But the reigning rookie of the year still isn't sure he has gotten his game back after sustaining a concussion Dec. 7.
"I think every player goes through stretches where they don't feel as well, they're not playing as well," Skinner said. "I think the last couple games, I've played a little bit better. Obviously before that, I don't think I've been playing my best hockey. I don't know if that's part of the injury or it's just sort of one of those stretches where you're not playing as well. I think coming back was definitely an adjustment."
Skinner, 19, was leading the Hurricanes in goals (12) and points (24) when he took a hit against the Edmonton Oilers. The day after the game, the Hurricanes were off. He didn't feel well toward the end of the day. On the ice the next day, he said, he felt "just a little bit weird."
The next 10 to 14 days, he didn't do anything. He did some eye exercises the doctor had given him, but had headaches. He had to progress slowly – light bike, skating on his own, skating with the guys, going through contact.
"It was definitely not the most fun," Skinner said. "It was a long time. It was frustrating not knowing when the symptoms are going to go away and when you're going to be back."
Skinner had never suffered a major injury before, let alone a concussion. He had never missed an NHL game before, let alone 16 straight. He had never jumped back into action in the middle of a season before, let alone in the NHL.
And all of this has come amid a trying season. The Hurricanes got off to a bad start and replaced coach Paul Maurice with Kirk Muller. It's a long way from last year, when he played in the All-Star Game in his own rink as an 18-year-old, when he was hockey's version of Justin Bieber, when ended up with 31 goals, 63 points and the Calder Trophy.
But at least now he's healthy, and the Hurricanes are coming off a 6-1-4 record in February.
"It's been more challenging," said Skinner, who has 16 goals and 34 points in 47 games. "You learn from those things. There's been some speed bumps I've had to go over, but those things are going to help me along, hopefully. I can sort of learn from them and be better equipped to handle anything that maybe comes up in the future. The team is playing a lot better now, and I'm excited to be a part of that."
The Dallas Stars' Eric Nystromwas not suspended for his hit on the Pittsburgh Penguins' Kris Letang on Wednesday night. Nor were the Philadelphia Flyers' Zac Rinaldo and the San Jose Sharks' Marc-Edouard Vlasic suspended for their hits on Tuesday night. But despite the lack of Shanabans lately, NHL disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan has not lightened his standard of enforcement.
Nystrom received a roughing minor for hitting Letang in the head with his right arm. But Letang had lowered his head to reach for the puck at the last instant, putting himself in a vulnerable position. Rinaldo came from the blind side and drilled the Sharks' T.J. Galiardi as he was shooting the puck, but appeared to make full body contact.
The best example might be Vlasic's hit on the Flyers' Danny Briere. It might have been a missed boarding penalty, but it wasn't a suspension in the league's view. It was almost identical an example of a non-suspension-worthy hit the NHL gave on a preseason video. The Flyers' Claude Giroux stopped in front of the Boston Bruins' Zdeno Chara, initiated contact, lost the battle and went into the boards.
For the most part, it has been eerily quiet since the Washington Capitals' Alex Ovechkin was suspended three games for his hit on the Penguins' Zbynek Michalek in late January. You almost don't want to say anything. These things seem to come in waves, and there seems to be a tsunami right before the NHL general managers' meetings – like Mike Richards on David Booth two years ago, Chara on Max Pacioretty last year.
The NHL GM meetings are March 12.
Now that the trade deadline has passed and the NHL is headed down the stretch, we're shaking up the format for NHL Power Rankings. No more top six, bottom six. It's time for the top 10.
1. Vancouver Canucks: They added size, grit and depth at the deadline with Zack Kassian, Sami Pahlsson and Marc-Andre Gragnani, and now they have a chance to widen their lead atop the NHL standings. They play their next seven at home, not to mention 13 of their final 18. Up first are the St. Louis Blues, who are only one point behind.
2. New York Rangers: GM Glen Sather was wise not to dismantle the organization to land Columbus Blue Jackets captain Rick Nash before the deadline. As much as the Rangers could use a scorer, they have been built the right way and have uncommon chemistry. They have a whopping nine-point lead in the East. Don't mess with success.
3. Detroit Red Wings: With Jonathan Ericsson hurt and Mike Commodore traded, rookie defenseman Brendan Smith is expected to get some experience down the stretch. At 23, he's a baby in Detroit, especially on the blue line. The 2007 first-round pick was probably NHL-ready this season, but the deep Wings sent him to the minors, anyway, to over-ripen.
4. Boston Bruins: The B's still rank high, considering they're Stanley Cup champs and recently beat the Blues, who recently beat the Predators. But they went 5-7-1 in February and were shut out in five of those losses. Nathan Horton and Rich Peverley are injured, and the B's seem to be muddling through the dog days.
5. St. Louis Blues: Still not convinced the Blues can skate with the big boys? Tune in when they face the Canucks on Thursday night. They're 2-0-1 against Vancouver this season. They're 4-0-0 so far on their six-game road trip.
6. Nashville Predators: The Predators loaded up for the playoffs, acquiring Hal Gill,Andrei Kostitsyn and Paul Gaustad. But really, they had to load up just for the first round. They seem locked in fifth place in the West, with six-point cushions above them and below them. That means they likely will face Vancouver, Detroit or St. Louis – a tough start for a team looking for a breakthrough run.
7. Phoenix Coyotes: Won't. Die. Amid optimism that the ownership situation might be resolved, keeping the team in Arizona, the Coyotes went 11-0-1 in February and took over first place in the Pacific Division. They overcame deficits in three of their past four wins – rallying back after falling behind 3-0 against the Los Angeles Kings, 2-0 against the Calgary Flames and 1-0 against the Canucks.
8. Pittsburgh Penguins: This would be the best team in the league if healthy. It just never is. Captain Sidney Crosby is skating hard as he tries to return from a concussion, but now Letang, who missed two months with a concussion earlier this season, is gone again after taking that hit Wednesday night in Dallas.
9. Philadelphia Flyers: Asked about James van Riemsdyk, GM Paul Holmgren said: "James is signed here for a long time. I can't do anything when other teams call about him." True. JVR is signed through 2018. But wasn't Mike Richards signed through 2020? Wasn't Jeff Carter signed through 2022?
10. San Jose Sharks: Don't sleep on San Jose. If the Coyotes can turn things around as abruptly as they did, so can the Sharks, who still have the talent to make a Stanley Cup run. They have put that wretched nine-game road trip behind them. Now they need to get healthy and in sync.
PLUS:Eric Staal and Marc Staal meet again Thursday night. Eric, captain of the Hurricanes, hit his brother Marc, a defenseman for the Rangers, on Feb. 22, 2011, and watched him miss the first half of this season because of lingering concussion symptoms. Eric has denied guilt had anything to do with his slow start in 2011-12. But after posting 25 points and a minus-22 rating in his first 40 games, he has 29 points and a plus-7 rating since Marc returned to action on Jan. 2.
MINUS: Rangers captain Ryan Callahan will miss the Carolina game with a bruised foot. One reason for the Rangers' success this season is that their top three lines have been virtually injury-free.
PLUS:Steven Stamkos is quietly having a career year for the Lightning. He leads the league in goals with 44, seven more than anyone else, and ranks second in scoring, only three points behind the Penguins' Evgeni Malkin. He is on pace for career highs in goals (57) and points (98).
MINUS: What if Stamkos scores 60 goals, reaches 100 points, leads the league in both categories and the Bolts miss the playoffs? Can he win the Hart Trophy as the NHL's most valuable player?
PLUS:Mike Smith went 11-0-0 for the Coyotes in Feburary with a 1.42 goals-against average and .952 save percentage. He was a free agent July 1. He signed for two years and $4 million. Tampa Bay could've kept him. Toronto could have …
MINUS: The Crosby counter is at 35 games. The Penguins have 19 games left in the regular season.
“For Geoffrion's sake, I hope he can carry the weight of the 5 and 7 on his back for MTL. His story is great. Expectations shouldn't be.”
He isn't No. 5, Bernie ‘Boom Boom’ Geoffrion, his grandfather. He isn't No. 7, Howie Morenz, his great-grandfather. He's No. 57, Blake Geoffrion. And though he is the first fourth-generation Canadien – his father, Danny Geoffrion, played for the Habs, too – no one should think his number is headed for the rafters or he's headed to the Hall of Fame. He's a 24-year-old who has been up and down from the minors, and he was just traded by his hometown team, the Nashville Predators, not to his hometown team. He grew up in Brentwood, Tenn.
Celebrate his history, Montreal. Just don't smother him with it.