Sports

Leafs' Kessel responds to Wilson comments

By Terry Koshan, Toronto Sun

TORONTO - 

Phil Kessel inadvertently hit the nail on the head on Wednesday morning.

“We are always right there, every year, and then all of a sudden we hit these rough patches and we just have to find a way to not go through them,” the Maple Leafs forward said.

“We have to play good hockey all year long. You know you are going to lose a couple of games here and there, but you can’t go on losing stretches like we have in the past.”

Kessel is right about that. Losing skids would do in any team, especially those that come late in the season, like the Leafs learned harshly toward the end of 2013-14.

Kessel is part of the Leafs core that former coach Ron Wilson ran over with an 18-wheeler during a radio interview on Tuesday in the wake of the firing of Randy Carlyle.

It’s the same core that has not learned from the past, and as such, the Leafs — “all of a sudden” as Kessel said — hit those rough patches.

The group didn’t learn after the spate of bad play that led to Wilson’s firing in March 2012. It didn’t learn after the third-period Game 7 collapse against the Boston Bruins in May 2013. And it didn’t learn following the eight-game losing skid 10 months ago.

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger? It makes the Leafs indifferent, or unable to make corrections.

Captain Dion Phaneuf, the other lightning rod in the room, addressed the issue of that slippery thing called success.

“When teams don’t have success, and not just on our team, your leadership group has got to step up and we are expected to do that here,” Phaneuf said.

“I don’t look at that as pressure. We are expected to play better. I have to play better.

“We believe in this group that is in this room and I believe that we will come out of this stronger.”

In Wilson’s opinion, one he expressed in an interview with TSN Radio on Tuesday, some of the core players might be uncoachable and that because they had failed to win under more than one coach, it wouldn’t be wrong to point fingers at them as well.

Wilson was critical specifically of Kessel, saying, “You can’t rely on Phil” — which is as damning an indictment as you will hear.

It’s one thing to be on the outside of the room and have an opinion. The players can shrug it off. But though the words came from the mouth of an ex-coach, one who knows the core players quite well, neither Kessel nor Phaneuf were ruffled.

Never mind that Wilson would know better than just about anyone else.

“I didn’t hear anything that Wilson said,” Kessel said. “No clue.

“Sometimes I go cold out there. I don’t think I am any different than anyone else in the league.”

When Kessel was asked about whether the core could be in danger of being broken up, he said: “You guys have to answer that. I don’t know. I think we have a good team here.”

Was Kessel disappointed that his former coach would call him out nearly three years after Wilson was fired?

“I don’t really care, to be honest with you,” Kessel said. “Other than that, I did not see it so it does not faze me.”

Phaneuf said he had heard “bits and pieces” of what Wilson had said, but didn’t offer a stinging response.

“I have lots of respect for Ron and I enjoyed working for him,” Phaneuf said. “We believe in our group and that’s what matters.”

Did Phaneuf take the criticism of Kessel personally?

“When anyone gets criticized, as teammates, we do take it personally because we are a team and you feel for your teammates,” Phaneuf said. “We support Phil and when things like this are said, it is about our group responding.

“It’s not responding to what is (being said) on the outside, it is about responding to how we have been playing. We have not played well enough.”

That’s true. But the Leafs have not demonstrated an ability to correct mistakes in the past.

Peter Horachek will have a challenge until — if it happens — the leopard changes its spots. With this core, don’t count on it.

HORACHEK KNOWS THE DRILL

With the idea that Mike Babcock and others could be available to coach the Leafs this summer, is there any chance Peter Horachek can do enough to have the interim tag removed and become the club’s next full-time head coach?

“I don’t worry about that,” Horachek said before the Leafs played the Washington Capitals on Wednesday night.

“I was in the same role last year. It’s the same thing I am asking the players not to worry about. I’m not going to worry about what (management) is going to do or say. When it is time, if they feel like it is warranted, they are going to come to me and say that is what’s happening.

“Until that time, I can only worry about preparing players, making sure they are in the best opportunities to play their best game.”

Horachek last season took over behind the Florida Panthers bench after Kevin Dineen was fired. Horachek coached the final 66 games of the regular season, going 26-36-4. He joined the Leafs last July as an assistant coach.

Along with officially naming Horachek the interim head coach, the Leafs announced that the team’s manager of player development, Steve Staios, will go behind the bench as an assistant coach along with incumbent Steve Spott.

terry.koshan@sunmedia.ca

twitter.com/koshtoronto​

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