By HOWARD BERGER
SUNRISE, Fla. (Dec. 25) – Bah, humbug!
That seems to be the general reaction in emails this morning to the news Ron Wilson has finally received a contract extension as coach of the Maple Leafs. First, understand that this was in the works in the final-third of last season; only a disastrous start to the current campaign would have altered the outcome. So, nothing about this decision should catch any Leaf observer off guard. Second, Wilson doesn’t deserve to be fired if Brian Burke is sticking around. The coach has been saddled with mediocre personnel for much of his tenure, and that falls on the GM. To his credit, Burke has acknowledged this on several occasions when responding to criticism of Wilson. Double-B has completely gutted the roster he inherited in November 2008 and appears to have finally assembled a team with playoff possibilities. His message to Wilson? “You and I are in this together.”
For now, anyway.
Do not mourn today’s decision. Given his career numbers behind the bench, Wilson is among the most accomplished in his profession. Yes, you can make a solid argument that a coach missing the playoffs for three consecutive years should be fired and it’s true that no Toronto coach – prior to Wilson – has survived such a drought. But, there are two parts to making a change: a) dismissing the current man, and b) locating an improved alternative. The former is easy; the latter infinitely more challenging. At the moment – and whether or not you agree with Burke’s decision – there doesn’t appear to be an obvious replacement for Wilson. Though Marlies’ coach Dallas Eakins in clearly the flavour-of-the-month – and would seem to be on the rise as a candidate to coach in the NHL – he trails Wilson by 637 career wins. It wouldn’t be a fair or equitable switch at this point.
NO END IN SIGHT TO THE BRIAN-AND-RON SHOW IN TORONTO.
Keep in mind, also, that extending one’s contract in professional sport is hardly a guarantee of employment. Though Wilson won’t be holding any tag-days, I’d vehemently recommend that he guide the Leafs into the Stanley Cup tournament this spring. A second-half collapse that results in another playoff absence – Toronto’s seventh in a row – would likely reduce today’s announcement to that of a golden handshake (friends do look after one another).
Wilson’s prickly demeanor always seems to be a point of contention, but it is largely irrelevant. The NHL’s all-time coaching leader – Scotty Bowman – wasn’t the warm-and-fuzzy type; all he did was win. Wilson and Bowman are substantially different away from cameras, microphones and note-pads. Both are friendly, engaging, and fascinating to chat with on any number of topics. Moreover, Wilson didn’t adopt his temperament upon arriving in Toronto. If you don’t believe me, check with colleagues in Anaheim, Washington or San Jose. In fact, Ronny was pretty much the same in his playing days. Darryl Sittler once chuckled when telling me that Wilson – while seated next to him on the bench at Maple Leaf Gardens during his first NHL game (in 1977-78) – offered advice to the revered Toronto captain. Confidence has never been an issue for ol’ Ron.
The overriding puzzlement – and trend – during Wilson’s tenure behind the Leafs bench is lousy penalty killing. That alone shouldn’t prompt a coaching change, but neither has anyone come up with a reasonable theory as to why it’s been so uniformly bad. If it doesn’t improve in the latter half of the schedule, the Leafs will be life-and-death for a playoff spot – hardly a comfortable circumstance for the coach, extension or no extension.
In the meantime, let’s get into the holiday spirit. Wilson and I have one thing in common: we both know what it feels like to lose a job. Ron has generally earned his keep behind the bench in the NHL and no one should begrudge another person for bettering himself. Perhaps Brian Burke has prolonged the tenure of a coach that ultimately solves the Leafs interminable championship drought.
Only time will tell.