In part 11 of his 12 Burning Questions series, Derek Harmsworth takes a look at one of the hottest topics in Leafs Nation today: just how long of a leash does Ron Wilson have?
In the summer of 2008, the Toronto Maple Leafs were in the midst of a major overhaul. Â Much maligned general manager John Ferguson, Jr. had been relieved of his duties with the organization, and as nice a man as JFJ was when I met him at the Leafs rookie and orientation camp a year prior, there is no solid argument that can be made for him as a good GM.
Ferguson Jr, to his credit, can take solace in the fact that a few of his draft picks are now cracking the Leafs as legitimate players, Kulemin and Gunnarsson among them, although even that fact can be debated Â - how much was scouting and how much was general managing?
In a word, John Ferguson Jr. left the Toronto Maple Leafs in shambles, and some of the moves he made, continually sacrificing youth for a quick fix solution (or at least something he thought was a quick fix) have very well set the Maple Leafs back at least an additional few years in the rebuilding process.
(writer’s note: Since his firing from Toronto, it has been speculated, and perhaps even acknowledged by Ferguson Jr himself, though I cannot find a written resource that indicates as such, that Ferguson Jr wanted to rebuild the team, but wasn’t given the support from MLSE to do so. Â Take it for what you will.)
Ferguson was fired, and Leafs head coach Paul Maurice was also let go. Â Former general manager Cliff Fletcher, who gained prominence in Calgary and was also integral in breathing life into the moribund Leafs in the early 1990′s, was back on as GM, and while he insisted he wasn’t there for the long haul and was only helping the team for a short time as a favour to the organization, he was given full permission to make moves.
Some of them, as in the Jeff Finger contract, can be debated. Â And really, while there is absolutely no question Fletcher overvalued Finger dollar wise, the fact remains that he could be a decent defenseman, if his salary didn’t dictate expectations as is life in the new CBA world the NHL has bestowed upon us.
During the following months of 2008 Cliff Fletcher was around to oversee the Maple Leafs search for a new head coach, a position as prestigious as wearing the captain C on the sweater. Â Former Maple Leafs coaches include Conn Smythe, Hap Day, Punch Imlach, Dick Irvin, King Clancy, and Pat Burns and Pat Quinn, among others.
After a few months of speculation, and some really good names being bandied about in the rumour mills, the Maple Leafs decided(likely in a move to further entice Brian Burke) to try and bring Ron Wilson, a highly decorated coach with a winning track record, into the fold.
Wilson, who had just been fired by the San Jose Sharks after another disappointing playoff run (which has been all but concluded to be not his fault if the last two seasons were any indication) came to Toronto with lofty expectations, set in part by the fans starving for positive change and success, and in part by the mantle of awards and accomplishments he had tallied over the course of his coaching career.
Although he hadn’t yet been able to see his name engraved on the Stanley Cup yet, Ron Wilson had led most every team he had coached to some form of success.
In four years with the newly minted Anaheim Mighty Ducks, Wilson led them to three seasons of 30 wins or more, and coached the team to a second round playoff loss in his final year with the club. Â And while three of those 30 plus win seasons weren’t good enough to get the team to the playoffs, they could still be viewed as impressive numbers for an expansion team.
Wilson immediately was hired by the Washington Capitals, and promptly led them to the Stanley Cup Finals, where they were overmatched, but not outworked, by the Detroit Red Wings. Â That series, of course, featured the famous “Hanta Yo” speech by Wilson, which sparked the Caps, if only momentarily.
He was with the Capitals another four years, which included two Southeast division championships, but they were never able to achieve the postseason success that they saw in Wilson’s first year with the club.
After moving to San Jose, Wilson had great regular season success with the team, but the playoffs seemed to be a whole other animal to those wearing Sharks colours, and while he took the fall two years ago for the Sharks postseason shortcomings, one can argue he wasn’t the problem, or wasn’t the complete problem, as San Jose has followed a similar pattern under their new coaching regime.
He has also coached Team USA internationally, and those highlights include winning the ’96 World Cup Of Hockey on Canadian soil, and leading a USA team who were picked by many to finish fourth at the 2010 Olympics to within a goal of taking the gold medal.
Wilson’s first two years in Toronto have not been great by any stretch, but one can argue that he hasn’t had much to work with.
However, it appears that the Maple Leafs may finally be primed to fit Ron Wilson’s style a little more as the club enters the 2010-2011 NHL season. Â Wilson has a history of taking less talented teams (Anaheim, Washington) and getting the most out of them.
With Brian Burke truly beginning to define the club as his own, perhaps the time is prime for Ron Wilson to stretch his club as far as they can bend, and squeeze that much more out of them.
However, patience in Leafs Nation is running thin, and with good reason.
After a couple of losing seasons, whatever mystique Ron Wilson had when he was signed by the Leafs is certainly gone. Â And while he can not take the total blame, the special teams of the Toronto Maple Leafs have been downright awful, something many thought was improve under Wilson.
One can argue in his favour that last season didn’t exactly go as planned for a lot of people on the Toronto Maple Leafs. Â Big names went down to injury. Â The team, which was largely overturned, took a longer than normal gelling process. Â The team had a goaltender-for the first half of the season anyway-that couldn’t carry the mail so to speak in Vesa Toskala.
With those odds stacked against him, it can be argued that not many coaches, if any, could have coached last year’s team out of their tailspin.
There are also rumours of dissent between Wilson and star defenseman Tomas Kaberle. Â And while both sides are denying the rift at the moment, and saying all the right things to the media, it certainly makes you wonder about some things, including whether or not a rift may exist between Wilson and any other players.
After two losing seasons in Toronto, in which they actually regressed last season, Wilson would be on a short leash if it were up to the fans of Leafs Nation.
But it’s important to remember who runs the show, and at this stage of the game, I don’t think the Leafs have a GM who will fold under pressure, Â be it from public or otherwise.
Ron Wilson was, in a lot of ways, brought into Toronto specifically for Brian Burke. Â It was a move that, to be honest, seemed a little sketchy considering their past relationships together. Â Wilson was the man Burke wanted to coach his hockey team, and now he has him in Toronto.
The two have known each other for years, have worked together internationally-with success-and now work together in Toronto, both with a competitiveness to their ego’s that drives them to be the team that is here when the Maple Leafs finally do achieve great success.
And Brian Burke believes in Wilson, perhaps because he sees a little bit of himself when he looks at him. Â After all, Wilson is a hard nosed coach who is firm but fair when dealing with players, and expects the absolute best out of his players.
For now, season records and accomplishments aside, it looks like Brian Burke has no interest in seeing Ron Wilson not behind the bench of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Â And with two years left on his contract (this year and next) it appears that Wilson will be safe with the Leafs at least for the duration.
And colour this writer crazy, but that doesn’t seem like such a bad thing to me.
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