TORONTO — Pity Peter Horachek.
The weight of all these losses is starting to add up. Until now, the interim coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs has remained remarkably patient — continually finding sunshine amid a long, cold winter at Air Canada Centre.
After two months on the job and 22 losses in 27 games, the size of the task before him simply can’t be ignored. You can see it on the increasingly tired-looking face of the hockey lifer and hear it in his voice.
Monday’s 4-3 overtime loss to the New York Islanders was particularly cruel. Horachek demonstrated his commitment to the long-term health of the organization by scratching Nazem Kadri, his No. 1 centre, following a late arrival to Sunday’s practice and appeared to spark his team by juggling the forward units.
Yet even with a 3-1 lead midway through the third period and goalie Jonathan Bernier in top form, the Leafs couldn’t squeeze out a victory. The cracks in the foundation were exposed again.
“I think there was some good things,” said Horachek. “There was some positive things, but when you get down to it though — when you have a 3-1 lead and that kind of situation — that’s the part that stings a little bit.
“You fought for it and you want to finish the right way.”
The fight is getting increasingly more difficult, with veteran defencemen Stephane Robidas (left shoulder) and Roman Polak (hernia) both shut down for the season. When you add that to the recent departures of Cody Franson, Mike Santorelli, Daniel Winnik, David Clarkson, Korbinian Holzer and Olli Jokinen in trades, the lineup is getting awfully thin.
Adding insult to injury was the fact that NHL scoring leader John Tavares delivered the knockout blow on Monday after being held in check for much of the night. Tavares essentially went 1-on-4 through the Leafs in the extra period before finishing off a beautiful play in front of 30 family and friends.
The great ones always seem to find a way to make a difference.
“I’m kind of just reacting,” Tavares said of the winning goal. “I tried to gain some speed and I saw their defenceman kind of backed off and gave me the lane to the net. I just was able to hesitate enough to open up Bernier and I was just happy it trickled in.
“I didn’t get a whole lot of it.”
It was a goal that made Horachek cringe, although he noted that it came off the stick of a “world-class player.”
The most frustrating part of a 5-19-3 run under the new coach is the fact the Leafs have actually tightened up defensively. They’ve largely stopped trading chances with the opposition — a high-risk, high-reward style that doomed them to mediocrity under Randy Carlyle.
However, since eliminating it, they’ve become much worse than mediocre.
Horachek has basically been charged with putting the initial building blocks in place for a project he’s not going to see the end of. It’s a thankless job. His personal security doesn’t extend beyond the 15 games left to play this season.
The 55-year-old grew up nearby in Hamilton and has literally spent a lifetime working towards this opportunity. He held head coaching jobs in the IHL, ECHL, AHL and now-defunct Colonial Hockey League before spending a decade as an assistant with the Nashville Predators and 66 games as the interim head coach in Florida last season.
When Randy Carlyle was fired in early January, the Leafs appointed him as a temporary replacement in hopes that it might spark a sagging bunch. He brought an upbeat attitude and more structure on the ice.
“One thing I know about Peter is he’s got a lot of order,” Barry Trotz, his longtime boss in Nashville, said after the hiring. “He’s well-prepared, he’s won at every level. I worked with him for a long time and he’s got a good balance between the discipline and the structure and accountability and respect in the room.”
Even without results, Horachek has made good on that advance billing during his 27-game stint at the helm of the Leafs. He didn’t hesitate to scratch a struggling Clarkson twice before the winger was dealt to Columbus last month and sent Kadri straight home after he arrived 20 minutes late on Sunday morning.
He followed that up with an even stronger message by scratching the 24-year-old against the Islanders.
For his part, Kadri expressed remorse about the mistake and didn’t try to make any excuses about whatever led to it. He also made a point of apologizing to Horachek and the other members of the coaching staff during a closed door meeting on Monday morning.
“He’s just told me to basically keep my head up and don’t let it happen again,” said Kadri.
Often you have no choice but to try and make the best of a bad situation. It’s something Horachek knows all-too-well.