By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (Sep. 7) – Critics and detractors of Ron Wilson may derive perverse enjoyment from his situation heading into the 2011-12 National Hockey League season.
For the first time in Wilson’s tenure as coach of the Maple Leafs, he has neither the cushion nor security of an extended contract. Adding a couple of years to his agreement with the club – slated to expire next July – would have required a financial commitment from Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, and Leafs ownership has money the way a computer has bytes. The decision of general manager Brian Burke not to extend Wilson’s deal is rooted much more in symbolism than economics. This is a boss telling a chief employee – in no uncertain terms – that his job is squarely on the line in the event of continued malfunction.
There is a number of ways to look at the circumstance, and none are devoid of peril.
The biggest danger for Wilson is that his players are now in immediate control of his fate. This is essentially the case with every coach in every sport, but it becomes an overriding issue upon entering a “lame-duck” season with three consecutive years of playoff absence. Wilson – in my opinion – is an excellent coach with a temperament that could now supersede his all-time ranking. The Windsor, Ont. native has a cutting – at times disdainful – mannerism that rubs some people the wrong way. Such a demeanor is hardly uncommon among professional coaches (Scotty Bowman may have invented the mold), but Wilson no longer has much leeway. In a worse-case scenario, the Leaf players could decide they don’t like Wilson and stop playing for him – knowing that a downturn of any length will almost certainly result in his demise.
Wilson is also susceptible to less-radical failure. Should goalie James Reimer – for example – endure the struggle common among second-year players, the Leafs will not win as often as Burke expects. Who is likely to pay for that scenario?
All of which begs the question: does Wilson deserve this less-than ideal circumstance? Given the climate around the team, if you ask 100 Leaf die-hards, 98 are likely to say “yes”. On the surface, Wilson hasn’t done anything more commendable with the club than his predecessor – Paul Maurice – who was excused from the role after two playoff misses. For whatever history is worth, no Leafs coach has ever survived a three-year playoff famine, probably because such a drought has only happened once previously – from 1925-26 to 1927-28 – and that coach was the founder and owner of the franchise: Conn Smythe. So, Burke clearly had sufficient reason not to extend the contract of his old college pal this summer.
On the flip side, Wilson hasn’t hung around the NHL coaching ranks since 1993 by accident. Those that contend Burke has stuck with Wilson only because of their long-time association are shallow thinkers. It’s implausible that the Leafs GM would put his own job on the line with such limited criteria. Instead, Burke has maintained an honest, practical outlook, understanding – and saying, for public record – that he hasn’t provided Wilson the components of a playoff roster. Until now. Suggesting, in training camp, the Leafs’ goal is to “challenge for a playoff spot” – Burke’s mantra in his first two seasons – is hardly the same as expecting a berth in the Stanley Cup tournament, no matter how it’s interpreted. So, Wilson’s rope has been extended, perhaps longer than some desire, while Burke has busily put his own stamp on the hockey club.
RON WILSON (LEFT) AND BRIAN BURKE FLANK LEAFS CAPTAIN DION PHANEUF.
In my opinion, the GM’s faith in Wilson was justified by the Leafs performance in the final third of last season. Anyone that has followed this corner in the past half-decade would know that I’m the first to discredit so-called “garbage time” – a juncture of the schedule in which the Leafs have garnered their best results. Under Wilson – and Maurice, before him – the Leafs have played abundantly better once relieved of any reasonable playoff expectation. That wasn’t the case last year. The club began to show significant improvement in mid-February and as Reimer increased his hold on the starting netminder’s job, it worked its way back into playoff contention.
The Leafs prevailed in a number of important, pressure-type games – winning in such tough arenas as Buffalo, Boston, Montreal and Philadelphia; going 7-and-1 against teams ahead of them in the Northeast Division (Bruins, Sabres, Canadiens) while defeating Boston and Buffalo on three occasions in the same season for the first time.
Wilson may have been guilty of “over-coaching” when he started a rusty Jean-Sebastien Giguere in a critical encounter at Florida on Mar. 17 – choosing to keep Reimer out of uniform altogether. The 4-0 loss to the Panthers was almost universally pinned on Wilson for resting Reimer – blame that did not consider, in any way, Reimer’s decidedly poor outing against Tampa at the Air Canada Centre three nights earlier (a 6-2 pounding). Otherwise, it appeared the Leafs were responding quite favorably to their head coach in a playoff-type atmosphere. Wilson, with a popularity-rating in steady decline, did not receive his share of credit for the impressive late-season push.
This is not to suggest that Wilson should survive a lame beginning to the 2011-12 campaign. He has clearly been accorded – by Burke – the respect and margin of error earned through the course of a career that ranks him seventh on the all-time list of regular-season victories  – one behind sixth-place Bryan Murray and trailing only Murray, Mike Keenan, Pat Quinn, Dick Irvin, Al Arbour and Bowman in the coaching fraternity.
Those that choose to discredit such an accomplishment by pointing to Wilson’s number of regular-season losses, or his lack of a Stanley Cup ring (he guided Washington to the 1998 final, whereupon the Capitals were swept by Detroit) are among the shallow thinkers previously mentioned. Though the pattern of “recycling” coaches in the NHL seems to be changing, longevity is the most accurate barometer of a successful career… one that Wilson has certainly enjoyed.
Undoubtedly, his career will end, or take pause, if the Leafs resume their pattern of stumbling through most of October and November. That said, Wilson has been around long enough – and has had precious little time coaching a representative team here in Toronto – that he does not deserve to be the subject of a “watch”. We all know that as soon as the Leafs go winless over a span of three or four games, the calls for Wilson’s scalp will intensify beyond any prior level… also a by-product of Burke refusing to extend his contract.
But, that’s life in the big leagues and it represents Wilson’s new world.
Something tells me he isn’t losing sleep over it.