Since I posted here almost a year ago that I assumed Ron Wilson would receive a contract extension soon after the conclusion of the 2010-’11 NHL season, I should not be surprised he has ultimately landed just that.
VLM readers will know that I posted here recently that my strong preference, as a long-time Leaf person, was to see the situation dealt with at the end of this current season. Yes, Wilson would then have been the classic “lame duck” coach, but he hadn’t exactly earned an extension, in my mind, based on the alleged “meritocracy” that the Leafs talk about constantly these days. So my feeling was, if Ron was miffed and felt disrespected, well, he could always take his bat and ball and go elsewhere as a free-agent next summer.
And if that occurred, there would be no shortage of capable, qualified people (Carlyle, sure, and Dallas Eakins, but many others as well…) who would love this job—and may well be even better suited to it—and this market—than the often acerbic Wilson.
Nonetheless, the people whose views actually matter have made a decision—no doubt with a deal cooked up over the past few weeks and maybe even signed weeks ago—that Wilson is the man for the Leafs going forward.
Again, it’s not a move I endorse (as if that matters a wit…) at this moment, because it could just as easily have been done in, say, May—but it is what it is.
With that as a backdrop, here are a few thoughts on why this may be just swell for the Leafs—or not so much:
- Wilson is like anyone else. He likes to be appreciated and shown respect for the work he does. The guy is a quality coach, and has been for many years.
- This ends the longstanding (albeit mild) awkwardness that Wilson—hired before Burke as part of the new Leaf era—was not really Burke’s choice as Leaf coach four summers back. Cliff Fletcher made that call, as the so-called “interim GM”. Now it is clear that Burke has made a decision independent of being hamstrung by the appointment of his predecessor.
- The players—not that they seemed all too consumed by their concern for the coach’s future security—will now know with certainty Wilson is the guy driving the bus for the next few years. Any temptation to “tune him out” because he will be in his 5th season behind the Leaf bench next fall (four years being acknowledged in some quarters as the time many coaches began to “lose” their squad…) will likely be pushed aside by the reality that Wilson is definitely in charge.
- The players are indisputably playing hard for him.
- Some players have seen their game improve under Wilson. While still a flawed defenseman, Phaneuf seems to be playing better than when he first got here. Wilson’s patience with Bozak is paying off. Lupul has certainly thrived under Wilson's "system". The un-heralded Tim Brent was a revelation last season under Wilson. Other examples can be cited, too, of young players who are clearly developing under his tutelage.
- Continuity can be a very good thing. Constant change behind the bench tends to send the message that the front office doesn’t really have a plan, and even if they do, they can make decisions out of a sense of panic (see Canadiens, Montreal…). This signing reinforces that the brass has a plan and Wilson is the guy who they trust to implement what the architects have put in place. If you're a player and you don’t like it, get the hell out…let us show you the door.
- Wilson has a burning desire to win a Stanley Cup, the only thing really missing on an outstanding coaching resume. He comes from great hockey family, and while he often seems edgy and unhappy in his daily media interactions, you have to believe it would be a dream come true to win a Cup as the coach of the Maple Leafs. This contract gives him that chance.
- As I mentioned above, Burke could easily have waited until the end of the season. Based on his work with the Leafs the past three and a half seasons, I’m guessing few if any NHL GM’s would have been sitting on Wilson’s doorstep at 12:01 AM the morning after his contract expired to offer him a four-year deal. The Leafs had time on their side. (Burke has now claimed Wilson would be hired by another team in no time. Hmmm...guys who have actually won a Cup, like Hartley and Crawford, are without NHL employment. Hitchcock, another respected Cup winner, was too, until recently. I'm not sure Wilson automatically, at his age, gets another gig all that quickly...)
- The Leafs are surely the only organization with deep pockets that has actually given a guy a new contract—and a raise—after missing the playoffs three years in a row. (Yes, the Predators have kept Trotz all these years, but they have continued to improve under his guidance in the very tough Western Conference. Plus, the franchise has done it all on a shoestring, a testament to Trotz's coaching abilities…)
- Most coaches who come into a new situation, even with a mediocre line-up, kick-start a surge in performance. (Look at what Dineen is doing in Florida this season. You cannot claim that is a great line-up, eh? And MacLean in Ottawa; how is that happening?) That clearly did not happen under Wilson the past three seasons, even in a parity-filled Eastern Conference that is not exactly stellar from top to bottom. The organization has seemingly hung its hat on Wilson’s short-term “success” in 2011-’12—success that might not have seemed as impressive had they not won both games before the Christmas break.
- Yes, Wilson can be a funny guy and people seem to love his use of Twitter (and I'd like to see him relax a bit), but chances are, backed by the security of a new contract, he will be just as edgy, arrogrant and acerbic as ever if and when the Leafs struggle. We now get to see his media act for a few more seasons.
- The penalty kill won’t get better simply because the coach has a new contract.
- People talk about “all” the injuries the Leafs have played through this season that Wilson has had to coach around. Hey, forget last season, when the Leafs were mercifully spared anything like what many of their Eastern Conference foes had to deal with, injury-wise (and some of them made the playoffs ahead of the Leafs…).
- Has anyone actually compared the Leaf injury situation this season with what some other teams are facing? The Pens without Crosby, et al? The Habs without Markov? The Rangers without Staal. Ottawa without Alfredsson. Yes, the Leafs have had injuries, but nothing truly major. The Islanders were down to, what, their fifth-string goalie? Key guys, like Lupul, Kessel, Kulemin and Phaneuf have been healthy for the Leafs. In short, Wilson has had few serious, long-term roster issues.
- Honestly, this should be an easy team to coach. Why do I say that? They are young, eager to learn and get better. Some are unproven at the NHL level. Many are fighting for—or playing for—NHL jobs. That is an ideal type of team to be at the helm of. Even the “stars” are young enough that they have to listen to the coach. Motivation should not difficult when you haven’t won anything, haven’t proven anything and need to perform (in some cases) just to stay in the league.
- Here’s perhaps the most important point: if I was in charge of MLSE, I would want to find the absolute best coach out there—just like former Leaf owner Harold Ballard wanted to bring Scotty Bowman to town in the summer of 1979 after Bowman had won four consecutive Cups with Montreal. And like when Fletcher went out and stole Pat Burns from the Habs in 1992. And just like MLSE went out and courted the guy they thought was the best GM available—Brian Burke.
- The Leafs should be able to attract, hire and pay for the best coach in the world. Is Wilson that guy? If he isn’t, why have they just committed to a new long-term deal? They should be able to bring on board one of the very best coaches in the world, just like Read Madrid went out and lured Jose Mourinho, a proven winner.
At the end of the day, it’s MLSE’s money (though at some point the fans pay for it…). So if they want to tie themselves to a coach who may not be the best guy for the job, well, it’s easy to change course at any point down the road.
For now, it’s one thing we won’t have to talk about in Leafland for a while, though the next time the team gives up a goal on the penalty-kill, or loses a couple of games, who will be the first to say…”Why did we re-sign that guy again….?"