Was Ron Wilson the wrong coach at the wrong time?


Photo: The Star

At some point in our schooling, we’ve almost all had a teacher or professor who, as wise and experienced in the subject he or she may be, has unreasonably high expectations of the students. The type of teacher who operates on the assumption there’s a level of understanding that simply isn’t there.

I won’t pretend as though I know what was happening in the dressing room on a day-to-day, game-by-game basis, but if I can read between the lines, that was Ron Wilson. In terms of the system he had his group playing, he was the hockey equivalent of a math teacher teaching calculus without assuring his students had the basic number sense down first. It’s not that the students are incapable of performing the basics or that they’re unaware of their existence, but you have to be sure they’re down pat before tackling challenging concepts, especially with an inexperienced class of pupils.

It sounds like a reach to suggest a National Hockey League coach did not pin down the basics with his group of professional hockey players, no matter the average age, but it has been amazing to listen to the players and new head coach Randy Carlyle speak about basic defensive play as if it’s new to them. Basics like being on the right side of the puck, protecting the middle of the ice, breaking out with proper puck support, and avoiding hail mary, low-probability stretch passes.

Anyone hoping for a Ken Hitchcock, St. Louis Blues type turnaround by Carlyle’s Leafs has learned a harsh lesson the last few games. After a 3-1 win over the lowly Habs, the Leafs stuck with Boston better than they did under Wilson this season, and let a winnable game in Pittsburgh slip – both one-goal decisions. Better, for sure, but it’s the small details that will win or lose you close games against the NHL’s best. In St. Louis, Hithcock tweaked the preexisting systems to great effect. What we are seeing in Toronto under Carlyle has been a full blown overhaul of the 5-on-5 systems. It’s a learning process; one in which the Leafs, unfortunately, don’t seem very far along.

We never heard much mention of systems play by Wilson during his interviews. The go-to explanations involved individual mistakes and poor execution; phrases like “a few mistakes here,” or “lack of execution there” were often used in post game postmortems following a loss.

Wilson didn’t seem to address the mistakes as they were fresh on the minds of his group, neither during the game or afterwards in the dressing room (at least not after a win), as we’ve recently learned. For a young group that needs these lessons hammered into their skulls until it becomes automatic, Wilson seemed to take the “they know what they did wrong” approach.

Wrong place, wrong time. It might have worked in San Jose with one of the league’s most experienced and talented outfits. The high-risk system and put-it-on-the-players approach doesn’t work when trying to squeeze more out of less from one of the league’s greenest groups. It crushes confidence, leaves goalies out to dry, and has everyone in the dressing room looking around for answers. Eventually it got so tense to the point where, when a mistake was made, each of the other 19 players was simply happy it wasn’t him shouldering the blame.

We accepted it for a few seasons, while the results matched the perceived talent level. The Leafs were never expected to contend this season either, but a 1-9-1 stretch, miring the Leafs in no man’s land yet again (otherwise known as 9th-12th in the Conference), in Wilson’s fourth season behind the bench, with an improved roster? Simply not good enough. There was supposed to be a visible step forward taken this season. By the time Wilson got the axe, the Leafs were actually stumbling backwards relative to the year before.

Carlyle’s approach can grow old, too. It did in Anaheim, where, after six seasons, core members of the team tuned him out. Some grew tired of having the same message shouted in their ear. The grueling practices got old once the team started struggling. It’s much easier to work hard when the input matches the output. If your players are going through hell in practice and losing games anyways, they’re bound to start second guessing the one calling the shots.

But that time came after six-plus seasons of Carlyle behind the Anaheim bench, with five playoff appearances and a Stanley Cup to show for it. I’m hopeful Carlyle is what the Leafs need now. I’m a little disappointed it took Brian Burke this long to realize it, given the Leafs have not played like a playoff team for a significant duration of the schedule since they came out like gangbusters and surprised the league in the first 13 games (9-3-1).

It is a mistake to portray this Leafs team as far off as some are in light of the last 14 games. It’s been a while, but making the playoffs isn’t that difficult, I swear. With improved defensive structure, a league average goaltender, and some added size, it’s more possible than it has seemed since the Leafs’ 18-wheeler veered off the cliff face.

Previous articleThe Hyperbolic Chamber!
Next articleBrendan Gaunce Scouting Report
Alec Brownscombe is the founder and editor of MapleLeafsHotStove.com, where he has written daily about the Leafs since September of 2008. He's published five magazines on the team entitled "The Maple Leafs Annual" with distribution in Chapters and newsstands across the country. He also co-hosts "The Battle of the Atlantic," a weekly show on TSN1200 that covers the Leafs and the NHL in-depth. Alec is a graduate of Trent University and Algonquin College with his diploma in Journalism. In 2014, he was awarded Canada's Best Hockey Blogger honours by Molson Canadian. You can contact him at alec.brownscombe@mapleleafshotstove.com.