Wilson needs a passing grade


Photo: Andy Marlin/NHLI via Getty Images

There probably isn’t a coach in the NHL on a shorter leash going into the 2011-12 season than the Leafs‘ own Ron Wilson. Without a contract extension, and entering the final season of his existing deal, the bench boss is fully aware that if he fails to deliver results early on, he’s done. It’s really as simple as that.

In the past we’ve often questioned whether Wilson would survive a brutal losing skid here or there (or everywhere.) Many of us have discussed - at length - the possibility of Burke exploring other options in the offseason. But none of this has ever come to fruition.

Firing a coach is a pretty enormous decision – even moreso when that coach happens to be a friend of yours, with whom you also share a past professionally.

However, recently Burke has managed to squash that sort of idea, to a degree, by going over Wilson’s head to fire his colleagues in Tim Hunter and Keith Acton.

To be fair, Wilson inherited Acton, who I’m pretty sure was nothing more than a lawn gnome ornament on the bench. But Hunter has been with him throughout his coaching career, and there’s no doubt that the decision to can him a few weeks ago was against Wilson’s wishes.

This act by Burke basically trumped any questions about whether or not he would let his relationship with Wilson hold back the team’s chances at success.

Scott Gordon was immediately brought in as an assistant as Wilson’s pick, but one would imagine Burke had some say in assuring pair of new guys had a certain level of experience. And here we are, with two capable NHL head coaches behind the Leafs bench. Pretty good deal if you ask me. But did Wilson essentially help in the hiring of his own replacement? Yet to be determined.

Of course Gordon’s hiring isn’t directly related to Wilson’s potential firing, but it does make things easier for Burke if things don’t go smoothly out of the gate.

We say it every year, that media scrutiny will be at its highest level yet when the Leafs start the season. This is the year they need results. Of course this sounds cliche, but this time around for Wilson, it’s simply the truth.

Most members of the media are fully aware of what I’ve just outlined above, and they’ll be hard on Wilson again if the team gets off to a rocky start. Not only that, they can immediately point to his replacement and flame Burke over it.

So what does Wilson need in order to stay away from the chopping block? Wins, obviously. But on a micro level he needs a few things to go his way.

If the special teams can’t turn it around, the Leafs will continue to struggle. Whether you can pin this entirely on Wilson is usually up for debate, but either way he needs things to finally click. Will the additions of Gordon and Greg Cronin bring in new ideas and aid in bringing up the percentages? It could be a job saver as the Leafs could make up upwards of 20 goals on their differential just by taking a small step forward on the powerplay and approaching the league average on the penalty kill. This would relieve a lot of pressure on a team that was among the bottom five in the league in 5-on-5 possession stats.

Another crucial element of the Leafs’ success will of course be whether or not James Reimer carries over his success from the past season into 2011-12. His demeanor suggests he can, but it’s sort of out of Wilson’s control regardless. This has to make him a tad nervous. The one thing he can’t do is ride Reimer too hard, as this is a young goalie that is attempting his first starting NHL goaltender’s workload. You then factor in the importance of Gustavsson bouncing back from a .890 campaign, and that has to have Wilson a little bit more nervous.

Integrating newly-added players like Connolly, Liles, Franson and potentially Lombardi on a level where they can find chemistry and contribute in a new sweater is important. All have the capability of making a pretty significant difference to the Leafs’ team dynamic, and on the scoreboard. It’s up to Wilson to make the transition as quick and smooth as possible for these guys.

There’s little doubt that Wilson is a competent coach. His track record in San Jose aside, in his time with Toronto we all know that he’s done great work with Kulemin, Schenn, and Grabovski particularly, and he should be commended for that. But those players, along with the rest, need to make up a winning formula  in order for him to keep his job.

I’ve always questioned whether or not Wilson fits the bill of  a “player’s coach.” It seems, at least from the outside, that he’s anything but.

We’ve seen a no-NHL-experience necessary coaching shift in the NHL over the past few seasons. The successes of younger bench bosses like Dan Bylsma and Guy Boucher seems to have influenced the direction a number of teams are taking, while old coaches like Pat Quinn and Ken Hitchcock (TBD) don’t seem to be able to find a good fit anymore. There are other fresh faces on the way in Glen Gulutzan (Dallas), Mike Yeo (Minnesota), Kevin Dineen (Florida) and surely soon enough, Kirk Muller.

Despite using an iPad on the bench from time to time or playing tennis dodgeball, Wilson seems to be part of an old-school way of coaching – or at least that’s how he portrays himself. His spats with Kessel and criticisms of Kadri through the media have been (obviously) subject to major attention, and it has brought into question his ability to properly communication with his players. But take this with a grain of salt, since Wilson has yet to really let things get out of hand to the point of him being fired. As Dave Poulin told MLHS, the dressing room really gelled during the Leafs’ playoff-like finishing stretch. Was this more a product of a bunch of young men, naive enough to say ‘to hell with the odds,’ playing for one another under a shared objective? Best case, the dressing room wanted to lay it on the line for Wilson. At the very least, they didn’t refuse to play for him.

Do I believe he’ll be spared the fate of walking the coach’s unemployment line? After all, it is tough to get back these days.

Of course I’m predicting that Wilson can hang on for one more season. And he’ll sign an extension early if the Leafs kick off to a solid start. Burke won’t want Wilson to be a lame duck if things are going according to plan.

It seems as though the pieces are in place for the Leafs to make some steps forward. Management has done some good work over the past few months, and I’m sure Burke and his army of executives would like to be rewarded. And more importantly, the (estimated) fifteen trillion fans would like the same.

The momentum of this past season’s second half should keep the team on the same page leading up to training camp.  It’s up to Wilson to ensure the team finds that groove again early on in the upcoming season. If he can, he can deliver a winning product. If not, let me know where I can find a stream for the Scott Gordon media conference.

Email ryanfancey@gmail.com and follow on http://twitter.com/maplestirup