Wilson, Burke Now Inextricably Bound

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.

EMAIL: howardlberger@gmail.com

7 comments on “Wilson, Burke Now Inextricably Bound

  1. While I don’t mind Wilson one way or another, I was on the one hand shocked about the one year extension, yet relieved the waiting is over. Leafs as I write this, a day and a few hours after the dopey loss against Florida(3 of 5 goals big time softies, two were on Reimer, one on the Monster) are now toying big time with the Pre Mendoza line which is the 8th playoff spot. They are at risk of falling out of the playoff spots by the end of this week or next week. They do not have anyone other than themselves to blame. Alternatively the up tempo , rushing defenseman , into the play odd man rush(Ron Wilson planned game) is flawed and getting them into serious trouble as it depends upon a lights out goalie in the back end.

    Kessel line stay on to long and on other teams would be benched for several shifts. For all of the goals etc they get- Lupul and Kessel are plus 5 and 2 respectively. Tyler Seguin and Brad Marchand are close to 50 when you addd their plus minus up. Leafs lack of secondary scoring hapless PK and non intense defense , combined with shoddy goaltending is getting them into big time trouble.

    If Wilson does not get Leafs into playoffs by close to 4 points, or are dreadful in the second half- fire /terminate Wilson- please- he is perhaps no longer the coach he was and more valuable to the Maple Leaf organization in other regards. Hire Dallas Eakins at end of the season as HC, Although it was early in their careers, Joel Quenville and Marc Crawford each coached the St. John’s Maple Leafs and then went on to other organizations when Leafs coaching clogged with other veterans- both ended up winning Stanley Cups at my last look.

    Leafs have propensity to dig themselves into big time games midway through season(Buffalo home and home a few weeks back) and shoot themselves in the foot. Maybe we can now say that they BB’ed themselves in the foot? Carolina game coming up very soon will fit one of these recent way to soon “big time games”

  2. No ones saying fire the guy, but a contract extension at this point in time, is insanity! That’s like a salesman, having awful numbers for 3 straight years & blaming his lack of productivity on the quality of the product. So until the company upgrades the product, how can you assume the salesman can be any better? You have to prove that you’re capable of actually doing a job, in the “real world”. Before you’re eliagable for a pay raise. I guess the bottom line is that pro sports are not living in the “real world”.

      1. I’m pretty neutral when it comes to Wilson. For all the complaining that Wilson haters do about the PK, it was awful for 2 years before he got here. I’m just baffled why they extended it now as opposed to later in the season. He wasn’t going anywhere.

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