Going back to last season, I put forward some preliminary thoughts about whether or not Ron Wilson was in line for an extension to his current contract. The Leafs got off to that short-lived “good start” last October, winning those four games in a row. But they soon struggled, and Wilson never received his extension.
That said, the team did appear to make some strides toward the end of last season, not coincidentally after James Reimer arrived on the scene and stabilized the goaltending situation.
I penned a piece here that declared that I was certain Burke would give Wilson a new deal very soon after the Leafs concluded their regular season last April. I was not shocked but rather surprised when that did not happen.
As the summer went on, Burke made it clear that while he was supportive of Wilson and had not given him strong enough teams to work with, he wasn’t yet prepared to offer a new deal, even though Wilson was heading into the final year of his original four-year contract. He made it clear that he had already been loyal to Wilson, but that the beginning of this season would (and I am paraphrasing only) help to clarify what direction he wanted to go.
He did allow that, if the team got off to a very good start to the season, an offer to extend the coach might well be forthcoming.
So here we are, in November, and the Leafs have a record of 9 wins, 5 losses and 2 OT "ties"- despite losing their top goalie early on. That said, the last two games, against Boston and Florida, have re-calibrated our early-season enthusiasm.
So is today a good day to ask for a raise, if you're Wilson? Probably not as good as it was a few days ago.
What is Burke thinking? Is an extension forthcoming?
What is Burke thinking? Is an extension forthcoming?
From my perspective, this is a dicey situation. I’ve seen so many occasions over the years in professional sports where an organization, in the euphoria of a good streak, rewards the coach with a new deal and extends him for several seasons with a nice raise to boot. Not infrequently, the team goes back to earlier form, struggles mightily, and before you know it, the General Manager has to fire the guy that was rewarded only months or maybe a year or so previous. That leaves the organization with a big bill to pay out the contract, and inevitably also means that they are paying two coaches at the same time—the new guy, and the one being paid to do nothing.
Specifically with regard to Wilson, here is the overview. He has had a fine, long-term career as an NHL coach. He is considered a very good NHL coach and has been for years. (That said, in this highly sophisticated day and age, how many “poor” head coaches are there in the NHL?)
He has led winning teams, but rarely gotten deep into the playoffs. No Cups on his resume, but some international achievements that should not be neglected in any discussion about credentials. He is a mix of old school and new. He still commands respect from the players. He is often clipped and defensive in his daily media interactions in the Toronto pressure-cooker, but that’s only one component of “the job”, though a key one, for sure.
As far as his years in Toronto, Wilson can be forgiven for the team’s failure to make the playoffs in three seasons—if we accept Burke’s suggestion that Wilson has not, until now, been provided with enough talent to mold a playoff-caliber team. I don’t, because other teams (and other coaches) have done better in less time in turnaround situations. But that’s just my view, and I recognize that other Leaf observers feel differently.
Reimer's unclear status aside, we can feel pretty good about the team’s status right now, 15 games into a new season, yes. But that is still a small sample size, and if I were in Burke’s shoes, I would be reluctant to jump quickly in assessing Wilson’s achievements with the current roster until much deeper into the season.
Remember, we’re not even talking about how he has handled a Leaf squad in the playoffs, which was ultimately why he was fired in San Jose. That was (and still is) a team with great talent, fantastic regular season results but always disappointing playoff exits.
Maybe of more pressing concern to those who assess coaches are two things I tend to look at, too: goals against, and special teams.
Now, to be “good” in those areas you do need talent, but a lot of it has to do with instilling in players a resolve to get the job done. Team defense is about systems, sure, but it’s mostly about hard work, smarts, tenacity and a willingness to block shots and work until you are exhausted- and then do it all again.
The Leafs have not been good in the past three years, and I feel they still give up too many goals. It can’t all be “The Monster”, eh? He has allowed some soft goals, yes, but the issues are deeper, I feel, than a few bad goals. Great goaltending can cover many ills but if you are a coach and you see those "ills", you obviously have to strive to correct them as best you can. You can't always rely on your goalie being outstanding.
As for special teams, well, we are now four seasons into the “Wilson effect”, and we are still waiting to see great results. We are now into our second set of assistant coaches, too, and these guys were supposedly going to make difference in this key area. Again, we wait. Yes, the penalty killing has been "better" the last few games, but in the context of two lopsided losses, I'm not sure we can detect a clear positive trend just yet.
There are many other things to consider, of course, in assessing Wilson. For example, does the coach still have “the room” or has he “lost” it? Wilson should have the room, despite being a “lame duck” coach. Why? Well this is a roster filled with young guys trying to either stay with the big team or fighting for minutes. If a coach can’t keep the attention of that kind of group, he probably shouldn’t be coaching at this level.
Taking into account all the above and the others things that are essential to coaching success at this level- and in this market- do you believe Wilson deserves an extension?
Make the case and let me know.