After surviving fans literally chanting for his head at the ACC, receiving the backing of Brian Burke with a very believable reaffirmation and absorbing the endless abuse from fans on every Leaf related website on the internet, Ron Wilson is still left standing. Â The scape goat that the entire Leafs Nation wanted to noose for their team’s lousy performance coupled with the potential consecutive lottery pick finishes without possessing a lottery pick seems to be getting the last laugh. Burke did the right thing by refusing to scapegoat Wilson. Â Will he now retain Wilson for next season and possibly sign an extension for beyond?
Ron Wilson is a Canadian born product of the USA hockey system. Â He had a very average pro hockey career, with NHL stints in Toronto (where he was drafted) and Minnesota bookending a pretty extensive 6 year pro career in Switzerland. Â As the old adage goes, “those who can’t… teach”. Â This is not meant to be critical. Â Simply playing in the NHL is a massive accomplishment with the statistical odds weighed very heavily against you.Â It has often been mentioned in hockey circles that the best players do not always make the best coaches. Â The theory goes something like this:Â Star players have always had the game come easy to them. They didn’t have to work exhaustively hard to learn how to do as they just could for the most part. Â The best coaches (according to this theory) are the players that had to work and scrap for every single second of ice time. They had to learn and work at every single aspect of their game in order to continue receiving a pay cheque to play hockey; as such, they are much better equipped to teach others how to do it. Â Personally, I am not sure if I believe this theory or not. Having seen Wilson recently reach the 600 win milestone, the theory, at least in this instance, seems to hold true.
Wilson is most often criticized for the lack of results with his special teams. Â The Leafs Powerplay and Penalty Killing units have been near the bottom of the league since Wilson took over the coaching reigns in Toronto. Â Many will argue that these are the areas where a coach can have the most direct impact, and that a teams performance in these areas are a direct correlation to coaching competency. Personally, I am not sure what to make of these suggestions. Are people legitimately arguing that a coach with 600 wins in the NHL (let alone ANY coach who has made it to the NHL) is not capable of chalk boarding and coaching an NHL caliber Powerplay and Penalty Kill scenario each night the Leafs hit the ice? It is of no surprise, at least to me anyway, that these metrics have shown an improvement this year. In fact, I would argue that the improvement in special teams this year is beyond what one would expect with a team currently ranked 26th in a 30 team league, and this is something that should reflect positively on the coaching staff, not negatively.
Player development is something that has been lacking with the Leafs for a LONG, LONG time. How many times have we watched prospects never reach their potential in Toronto, only to see them blossom in other organizations? I have heard all sorts of borderline crazy theories on this phenomenon. It’s the medias fault, it’s the fans fault, heck, I have even heard some insinuate that it’s the referees fault. A simple fact remains that development falls squarely on coaching. Anyone who has played hockey, and anyone who has made strides in hockey and played to any serious level, will all, without exception, look to their coaches who worked with them along them way. The most common sentiment among all of these players is that they learned “something” from each coach along the way that helped them be the player they are today. This is even more pronounced at the NHL level where coaches need to work with players, who ALL of them, throughout their careers, have been star players. Molding these sorts of players, and refining their skill sets into consistency and completeness, is simply the biggest challenge that exists for an NHL coach. The work Wilson has done with players like Grabovski, Kulemin and Schenn simply cannot be ignored. These are talents who traditionally would have been damaged in Toronto only to see them flourish elsewhere. Watching Wilson work with the likes of Bozak and Gunnarsson this year is only solidifying his development approach. Both players are struggling through sophomore slump types of seasons. Wilson is pushing the development process, and is looking to have these players recover and back on track mid stride without wasting an entire year. In fact, he did the same with all of Kulemin, Grabovski and Schenn last season, who were all struggling under a “sophomore slump”, and who all recovered and began forward progress with their development again in the later stages of the season, with significant and obvious rewards paying dividends this season. I would be willing to wager that we will see similar benefits from Bozak and Gunnarsson as this season progresses and flows into next season.
At the end of the day, the coach has practically zero influence on which players will be available on his roster. I am sure Wilson would have preferred to have better and more qualified assets each night he sent his team on the ice. I am beyond confident that he would rather be asking Crosby or Ovechkin or the Sedins to be executing his game plan and his strategies. Or, at the very least, top flight, legitimate blue chip prospects to work with and to mould into legitimate NHL players. Instead, he has worked with the hand he was dealt and has slowly and consistently developed the youth into something that resembles a young team with some good pieces moving forward. Most interesting here is, outside of Luke Schenn, none of these players have the draft position or pedigree to insinuate that this potential was even possible. Grabovski was a 5th round pick castoff from the Montreal Canadiens acquired by Cliff Fletcher, Kulemin and Gunnarsson were 2nd round and 7th round picks respectively from a previous regime and Bozak was a US College Free Agent signing by Burke.
The one player for whom I am not sure Wilson has had the sort of impact one would expect is Phil Kessel. Consistency has never been found with Kessel, and although NO ONE can argue the man’s talent when it comes to putting the puck in the net, Kessel has simply been the definition of inconsistency. A classic “streaky” player who scores in bunches, Wilson has not, to date, been able to transform Kessel into anything more than he is. One would argue that a player making $5.4M a year, a former top end 1st round pick (6th overall by the Boston Bruins), a player who the organization gave up at least one lottery draft pick for (and what looks to be a 2nd lottery draft pick for, and almost certainly a 2nd top 10 draft pick for), needs to have a greater impact in all zones. He needs to play with greater consistency, needs to be able to make those around him better and certainly needs to have some sort of impact when he is not scoring goals. At best, so far in his career, Kessel appears to be 60-65 point player. This is not the sort of asset that is traded for lottery draft picks. Should this fall on Wilson’s head? Â I am honestly not sure, but one thing is for certain – Wilson absolutely must find a way to add more dimensions and characteristics to Kessel’s game.
The Leafs’Â potential for making the playoffs in the future, let alone any playoff success, absolutely hinges on Kessel’s development from a streaky sniper to a complete player capable of putting up 75+ points. The common argument among Leafs fans is that Kessel will flourish once he has a legitimate front line center to play with. Obviously a legitimate front line center (assuming one can even be acquired outside the 1st round of the draft) can do nothing but produce more scoring chances, and ultimately more goals for Kessel – I do not believe this point can be argued, nor should it. Leaving aside the fact that a player at this price tag, with this cost of acquisition, should be one that can make those around him better, what proof do we have that Kessel is ever capable of being the front line piece we all expect he will one day be? On the plus side, he has had some playoff success back in his days with the Bruins. He has also proven that he is a legitimate 30+ goal scorer in the NHL. One can simply not argue these facts and we should all appreciate the talent Phil Kessel has – after all, it is not Phil Kessel’s fault that the Leafs gave up lottery pick(s) to acquire him. There is simply no doubt that Kessel will be an important finishing touch on the club’s first line at some point in the future (at least, this is the minimum expectation). On the negative side, he was invisible in the Olympics, where presumably the talent level of his team mates was much higher than what he is currently enjoying with the Leafs. He was also the player Boston decided was expendable when they were determining which players to lock up long term and which players to not. Bergeron, Lucic and Krejci were all locked up to multi-year, multi-million dollar contracts. Kessel was determined, correctly or incorrectly, to not be worth the investment and the cap hit, and was subsequently available. It now falls onto Wilson’s shoulders to prove the Bruins wrong and transform this player into something beyond what he currently is. I am not sure this is possible but if anyone is able to pull this off, it is Ron Wilson. As such, I hope Burke does the right thing and continues to retain Wilson as the head coach of the Leafs. With so much of the Leafs’ future dependent on the organizations capability to transform Kessel into a legitimate front line player, as well as the development of “long shot” youngsters into legitimate NHL players, Wilson, at least in my opinion, is the best man for the job.