By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (June 20) - The conviction in Brian Burke's voice tailed off when he addressed the Maple Leafs coaching staff during his end-of-season media pow-wow at the Air Canada Centre. Though he was quick to confirm that head coach Ron Wilson will return for the fourth and final year of his contract, the Leafs GM made no further promises in mid-April - pertaining to an extension for Wilson or security for Wilson's cast of assistants. The latter took a substantial hit today as Burke announced he was replacing Keith Acton and Tim Hunter with Scott Gordon and Greg Cronin. Precisely how this impacts Wilson may not be clear until November or December but it sure doesn't ring as a vote of confidence.
Neither is it a move without justification. Among areas in which hockey coaches are most-commonly graded - powerplay and penalty killing - the Leafs were again in the bottom-third of the NHL this past season (22nd and 28th respectively). To suggest that either Acton or Hunter were directly responsible for the unflattering numbers would be quite a stretch, as both men are widely respected throughout the hockey world. But, something had to give after a third consecutive playoff miss under Wilson and this likely serves as a warning for the Leafs head coach, who moves from the dugout to the on-deck circle in the realm of culpability.
Today's move somewhat discredits the Leafs uprising in the final third of the season; the club was 14-7-5 in its last 26 games (Feb. 15 to Apr. 9). During that stretch - largely governed by rookie James Reimer, who provided stability in goal - the Leafs scrambled into legitimate playoff contention and won a number of pressure-filled games. Wilson and his lieutenants appeared to be getting their message across and the team wasn't officially eliminated until Apr. 5 in its 79th game. Burke, however, has often talked about "viewing the entire movie, not just select scenes" and it's clear he was less-than thrilled with the overall picture.
TIM HUNTER (FOREGROUND) WAS FIRED TODAY FROM HIS LONG-
TIME ROLE AS AN ASSISTANT TO HEAD COACH RON WILSON
Firing Wilson would have reflected poorly on Burke, who has repeatedly called his former Providence College teammate "not just a good coach, a great coach." Still, the bloom may be off the rose, as Burke seems poised to enter next season with a "lame-duck" behind the bench - a term he abhors, but one that is frequently nullified by extending a coach's contract before its final year.
Burke vehemently downplayed the "lame-duck" notion during his end-of-season address, and added that he felt uncomfortable about extending any coaching or managerial contract with the possibility of the 2012-13 season being interrupted by another labor disagreement (coaching and management salaries are paid during a strike or owners' lockout). But, Wilson is directly in the line of fire now. If the Leafs stagger through the opening months of the season - as is their custom - Burke will almost certainly make a change.
The hiring of Gordon as an assistant provides the Leafs a former head man, as Gordon coached the New York Islanders in the 2008-09 and 2009-10 seasons, only to be fired after 17 games a year ago. Another bright prospect is already in the Leaf organization: Marlies coach Dallas Eakins.
This will be an adjustment for Wilson - both technically and emotionally. Upon being hired to coach the Leafs in June 2008, he was quick to summon his bench cohorts from San Jose: Hunter and Rob Zettler. "This way, I don't have to worry about coaching my coaches and can concentrate on the players," Wilson explained. Wilson trusted Hunter in multiple capacities; it was the former Calgary Flames roughneck that gathered with reporters when Wilson chose to take a "day off" now and then. Zettler, it appears, will survive the coaching shuffle... he is a former Leafs defenseman.
KEITH ACTON DURING HIS PLAYING DAYS WITH
MINNESOTA NORTH STARS IN 1980s
Acton was a carry-over from the previous two coaching regimes, headed by Pat Quinn and Paul Maurice. "Woody", as he is known throughout the hockey world, was a guy that could adjust and get along with practically everyone in the game, which allowed him to work for multiple personalities. It can be argued that no one on the team took losses harder than Acton; his body-language unmistakable after a defeat while sauntering from the bench to the dressing room. He was also the most accomplished former player among the Leaf coaches, having been a better-than-average centre with Montreal and Minnesota in the 1980s (he had 88 points with the Habs in 1981-82).