No More Mr. Nice Guy: Ron Wilson Needs to Be Tougher, Bring Up Marlies
It's easy to switch up the lines when things aren't going well for a hockey club, though for some of the players on the Toronto Maple Leafs, new linemates just aren't working out.
It's time they were given a stern message about their poor play; improve or you're watching from the press box.
Certain players on the Leafs, of which will be named, have been almost invisible throughout the team's recent games, and with Ron Wilson exhausting multiple line combinations to no avail, it may be time to send a shock through the team and call down to the Marlies.
Players like Matt Stajan, Rickard Wallin, and Jason Blake have played well at times, but have been overall major disappointments so far.
Through 16 games, Blake has just two goals, and with his shot total matching the number on his back, his shooting percentage is less than four percent. With Blake's cap hit at $4 million this season, you can bet the men in suits are not happy, and neither are the fans.
Basically, the only beneficial thing Blake has done all season is boost opposing goalies' save percentages—which I'm sure they appreciate.
Even playing alongside Phil Kessel, who has as many goals as Blake in four games, he doesn't seem to be finding the back of the net any easier. In the team's 5-2 loss to Minnesota earlier in the week, Blake was taken off the top line and replaced with Niklas Hagman for long stretches in the game. A direct message sent his way, but one that didn't seem to work.
It hasn't been working for Stajan, either, who has been relegated to fourth line duty and is averaging about 13 minutes a game over the last three. After a strong start from the 25-year-old, he has gone 12 games without a goal and is a minus eight.
Wilson has made his attempts at bringing Stajan's game back to life, but playing alongside Colton Orr and Wayne Primeau don't seem to be the answer. You could even argue it's hurting the toughness factor of the line, seeing as the toughest thing Stajan's ever done is switch from a regular toothbrush to an electric one; don't hurt yourself, kid.
Then there is Mr. Wallin, the soft-spoken 29-year-old who looks more like a violinist than a hockey player. He finds himself creeping ever so close to being completely useless as a member of the team. Through 16 games he has two assists, or to put a different spin on how bad it's been; in 2002 with the Wild he participated in four games and had more goals then.
He also has more games played (16) then shots on net (14) thus far, and I know he's meant to be a defensive forward, but come on Rickard, it's time to step it up or step aside.
Even on defense, where things are improving, Wilson should have his guys know that one more poor effort and he'll be sitting players in the stands rather than at the end of the bench. Luke Schenn and Francois Beauchemin have had their struggles this season and it's almost as if they feel they can get away with it because if they haven't been scratched yet, why would they be now?
It's time for Wilson to say goodbye to Mr. Nice Guy and get tough on his players. No more dodge ball at practice, he needs to have his players dodging questions from the media about why they're wearing a suit and tie instead of being on the ice.
The Leafs have been far too inconsistent this season and it can't go on any longer. If this team wants to play meaningful games late in the season, Wilson needs to start handing out healthy scratches like they're going out of style.
And there is plenty of young talent on the Toronto Marlies just itching to get a chance back up with the big boys.
Christian Hanson has been the best player on the Marlies this season and would undoubtedly look good in a Leafs uniform right now. Through 12 games he has five goals and 13 points and is proving himself to be a leader of his team.
He played a short stint with the Leafs last season and looked good with room for improvement, but at this point it wouldn't hurt to bring him up for a few games and see how he has progressed while playing heavy minutes in the AHL.
With the lack of goal-scoring from Blake this season, it would be a huge wakeup call if Wilson told him to watch the game from above, while Hanson stepped in to take his position.
Or how about Viktor Stalberg, who had a brilliant preseason, but after sustaining a concussion from a massive hit in a game against Ottawa, wasn't able to get his scoring touch back and looked much slower.
It seems as if he has regained his touch while playing in the AHL, and has three goals and seven points in just four games. Yes, the NHL is a much tougher atmosphere to play in, but if you were to replace Wallin with a speedy Stalberg it certainly couldn't be worse.
As for Stajan, if he wants to continue to be invisible on the ice, Wilson might as well just remove him altogether, because you know not a single person would argue if the team brought up Tyler Bozak—already a fan favourite.
Bozak has had a tough few weeks with reports suggesting he had caught the swine flu, but he has recovered and is back skating with the Marlies.
Bringing Bozak up could light a fire under him, as he was on a point-per-game pace when up with the Leafs—okay, so he got one assist in the one game he played—and you can bet that Stajan, if given the chance again, would come back knowing that his job isn't safe.
Even on defense, where there have been times that most of the Leafs look uninterested, Wilson needs to be tougher and instead of publicly criticizing them, needs to physically move them off the ice.
23-year-old Carl Gunnarsson looked like he had been playing on NHL ice for years during the preseason. He even heard the praises from Brian Burke, who was impressed with his ability to stand out—in a positive way, unlike some of his Leaf teammates—and prove that he could play against anyone.
If it wasn't for the log-jam that is Toronto's defense core, he may well have made the team to begin with, and it may be time to try out the Gunnarrson experiment once again.
I mean, the worst thing that happens is he comes in and makes a mistake which costs the team—something his Leaf teammates have made habit of doing so far—so needless to say, it wouldn't hurt.
Coming into the season, Brian Burke and Ron Wilson said time and time again that they would not hesitate to sit any player, no matter who it was, if they were not performing on the ice.
This is where the saying, "less talk, more action" would apply.
Wilson needs to start sending real messages, not the kind where a player finds himself on a new line; that isn't working. The Marlies are right around the corner and if it's the phone bill they're worried about they can just shout down to the AHL club.
You can bet there is a room full of Marlies who would jump at the chance to play in front of the bright lights of the NHL, and the time is now for Wilson to get tougher.
No more Mr. Nice Guy.
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