Is Ron Wilson Really To Blame?


With the typical (and expected) “Fire Ron Wilson” sentiment being thrown around after another tough loss (now five in a row) I thought I would enter the fray and share my opinion on the matter.  It is often easy to blame the coach and the old adage “it’s easier to fire one coach than 20 players” has certainly been applied in the NHL over the past 25 years but in the case of the Maple Leafs, is the coach really to blame?

I had written a story in the preseason that one of the potential problems I saw going into this year was the chance that Brian Burke’s general strategy really wouldn’t mesh well with the roster given to Ron Wilson.  The whole top-six and bottom-six forward approach is fine in theory when you have Henrik and Daniel Sedin, Marcus Naslund, Brendan Morrison and a prime Todd Bertuzzi at your disposal – or Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf and Teemu Selanne etc.

But on a team with only one legit sniper (Phil Kessel) you simply cannot afford to throw away or at the very least shape your lines with only two of the four focused on scoring, whether real or implied.  We got off to a hot start because Kessel was providing big time scoring on one line and Clarke McCarthur was providing big time scoring on another.  With both of them scoring at a ridiculous clip the third and fourth lines only providing truculence, defence and sand paper made perfect sense.

When reality (and law of averages) took over and Kessel and MacArthur were no longer scoring at an Alex Ovechkin type pace our lack of secondary scoring was painfully exposed.  We stayed with the same lines for a few games but Ron Wilson smartly adapted and shifted some of the scoring threats (if we can call them that) to be better represented through the first three lines, not just two.  While losing Colby Armstrong was also a mitigating factor to the line shuffling the Leafs simply cannot afford to have only two lines focused on scoring.

I have already championed for the Leafs to play a more stifling, defensive and patient game based on personnel but blaming Ron Wilson overall for the team’s woes is just wrong.  Ron Wilson’s track record suggest he is more than an adequate coach (just ask him) but the fact is the Maple Leafs aren’t exactly brimming with talent, especially in the forward core.  There is Phil Kessel (7 goals) and possibly Clarke MacArthur (7) or Nik Kulemin (4) who will be capable of 30+ goals each, and that is it.

We have an unproven NCAA first line centre in Tyler Bozak (2 goals), the talented but enigmatic Mikhail Grabovski (1 goal) centering our second unit and the unknown career minor leaguer Tim Brent on the third.  And although he has had a few tough breaks early on there is clearly a reason the Chicago Blackhawks had Kris Versteeg (2 goals) predominantly on their third line in more of a checking role.

He (Versteeg) is a fine hockey player and the Hawks obviously had depth up front but I don’t think Versteeg is destined to be this breakout scoring threat; he has enough games played in the NHL to get a good sense of what he can and cannot bring to a hockey team.  Unfortunately the bigger, stronger and cheaper Viktor Stalberg (sent to Chicago in the trade) has 4 goals and 4 assists and is playing roughly 11 minutes per night.  Stalberg also has more shots to date (30 to 24) and when you consider Versteeg is averaging over 20 minutes a game – we’ll hold off judgement for now but the jury is still out on that move.

Our third and fourth lines are effective both in providing their expected share of offense, shutting down our opponents relatively well and providing a boost of energy in the form of hits, hustle or fisticuffs.  Our defensive unit while deep is probably a tad overrated as it isn’t exactly filled with Norris Trophy winners but a solid group none the less where almost all of them could play on any other team’s defense core. Saying that outside of Luke Schenn there might not be anybody else on our blue line playing well enough this season to call them a true #1 or 2 defenseman, including Dion Phaneuf and Francois Beauchemin.

If we compared our defense to a baseball starting rotation I’d say we have one #2 starter (Schenn, who has the promise of an ace), a bunch of #3 starters (Phaneuf, Beauch, Kaberle) and then a #4 (Mike Komisarek) and two #5s (Brett Lebda, Carl Gunnarsson).  It’s a solid but unspectacular group and while not a weakness, probably a misuse of resources when considering overall production.  Basically, not enough bang for the buck.

Ron Wilson is doing the best he can with what talent he has been bestowed with, and has probably gotten as much out of this group as any other coach could have.  Outside possibly bringing in a coach with a drastic strategy change (i.e. a quick fix defensive minded coach).  So if we don’t (or at least shouldn’t) blame Ron Wilson, just who should bear the brunt of blame for the sad state of the Maple Leafs?

Brian Burke has been in office since November 29th, 2008 and will hit the two year mark of his Maple Leaf reign in a few weeks.  If there was an American styled mid-term election based on the results of his first two years he would probably lose more seats than the Democrats.  Is Burke solely to blame for the teams current plight or was the team he inherited from John Ferguson a complete and utter mess?

Let’s look at the top six forwards from the Leafs in 2007, the current 2010 group and the top six of both the Stanley Cup combatants from a year ago (Chicago and Philadelphia).

*Included will be the career point per game mark for each player for reference and comparison sake.

Leafs 2007/08 (record 36-35-11):

A. Ponikarovsky (0.53)M. Sundin (1.00)N. Antropov (0.61)
J. Blake (0.59)A. Steen (0.52)D. Tucker (0.50)

Leafs 2010/11 (5-5-3):

K. Versteeg  (0.58)T. Bozak (0.64)*P. Kessel (0.62)
N. Kulemin (0.46)M. Grabovski (0.56)C. MacArthur (0.45)

*Very limited amount of games career wise, it should be noted his 2010/11 PPG is 0.38

Blackhawks 2009/10 (52-22-8):

M. Hosssa (0.93)J. Toews (0.86)P. Kane (0.94)
K. Versteeg (0.58)P. Sharp (0.60)D. Byfuglien (0.45)

Flyers 2009/10 (41-35-6):

S. Gagne (0.78)M. Richards (0.76)J. Carter (0.73)
S. Hartnell (0.53)D. Briere (0.79)C. Giroux (0.62)

The Blackhawks second line listed above which didn’t always include Kris Versteeg (but I used him for sake of ease) would easily be our best line.  Take a look at the actual top line which includes three electric forwards all scoring at a near Mats Sundin clip – think about that.  The Flyers aren’t exactly an offensive dynamo by any means but still possess a second line that could also be considered the Maple Leafs best.

There is no doubt Brian Burke has changed the culture and the team appears to play harder, take less nights off and are definitely more truculent but it hasn’t yet made one iota of difference in the standings.  At what point does rhetoric need to be replaced with actual bodies capable of performing at a higher level, and just where are the Leafs going to find these needed pieces?  The latest anointed saviour seems to be Brad Richards and nobody knows for certain if this is a realistic option at all – would he even want to come here?

When I rationally discuss the game with a fan of another team the one point they make that has some validity is Leafs fans in general overstate the value of our own players.  We think because they are on our first line that they are valued league wise as a true first line player when in most cases it is simply not accurate.  Obviously this isn’t true of all Leafs nation (and most readers here) but you can’t deny you have seen this type of behaviour from fellow Leafs fans.

Let me put it to you another way if you had to play a buddy in NHL 11 on X-Box (PS3 whatever) in a game you absolutely needed to win and could choose any team in the NHL, would selecting the Maple Leafs even cross your mind –  based solely on talent level?

Given the Leafs current actual talent level it wouldn’t appear the team has a coaching issue per say but more of a managerial and roster creation problem.  The Leafs just aren’t that talented and how much of that is the fault of current GM Brian Burke remains an unanswered question and hot topic around Leafs nation.