As with any goings-on in Leaf Nation, the reactions of the most dedicated fans in the league to the Leafs’ recent skid has been, in some cases a bit extreme. Flip up a Twitterfeed full of Leaf fans any time the Buds are losing a game, and you’ll see all kinds of people calling for any number of changes to the club, with the most common target being the surly guy behind the bench: Coach Ron Wilson. There’s no question this is a make-or-break season for the Leafs’ bench boss, after missing the playoffs for the last three seasons, and finishing last in the Northeast Division two of the three seasons. With his contract up after this season, it’s pretty much playoffs or bust for the guiding hand behind one of the league’s youngest teams.
For a guy who won 4 division titles and made the playoffs 8 times in the 14 seasons before joining the Leafs, the past three seasons have had to be difficult for him, but there’s no question that the Leafs’ roster when he arrived was well below the stature of teams like the Olaf Kolzig-led Capitals in ’98, or the Sharks he took over in 2002, who boasted talents like Evgeni Nabokov and Patrick Marleau. One of only 7 men to ever win 600 NHL games behind the bench, it’s a bit astounding that he has yet to bring the Leafs back to respectability (although this season appears to be a step in the right direction).
Now, before I explain why I think the heat needs to be taken out from under Wilson’s seat for this season (and believe me, I don’t think for one second that the media, Twitter or blogosphere has any impact whatsoever on Burke’s decision-making process anyways), there’s obviously some big flaws. The big one is the penalty kill. I don’t know whether it’s a philosophical shift that’s needed, or if there’s simply something that’s simply not being appropriately communicated between coaches and players, but after three seasons of total ineptitude on the kill, it’s gotten a bit ridiculous. Wilson hasn’t made himself many friends in the media, with his sometimes-dodgy responses to personnel and injury-related questions, and he can be a bit gruff at times. Frankly, none of that bothers me, but it’s not earning him any more credit with people already out for his head.
That said, I can come up with a bunch of reasons that point to Wilson being a good coach despite all the naysayers. For starters, as mentioned earlier, the Leafs are one of the youngest teams in the league. Defensemen are notorious for developing slower than forwards, and I’d say it’s a safe bet that defensive forwards are a bit slower to adapt their game to the high-octane game at the NHL level. Name me an NHL team with star penalty killers under the age of 25, and I’ll call it a serious anomaly. The point is, while I’m not certainly not excusing Wilson for the penalty kill struggles, there are other sources of the problem.
Inconsistent goaltending has been something that’s plagued the Leafs since before Wilson began his tenure here, and that hasn’t changed this season. Coaching aside, when a team gives up weak goals like some of the ones that have gone in this season, there’s no one to blame but the goalies themselves. Jonas Gustavsson and James Reimer have both shown potential for being solid between the pipes, especially this season, but they aren’t exactly leading Vezina candidates at the moment.
My point is, that while there are many out there who automatically assume that a new coach would come in here and immediately right all the wrongs. The hot start for the Buds has raised the already-high expectations of many fans here in Leaf Nation, but the fact of the matter is, where the Leafs are located in the standings is exactly where they’re supposed to be. No, Wilson hasn’t been perfect, but neither has his very young team, or its very young goaltenders. This is a rebuilding club with a ton of potential, and in my mind, Wilson, the guy who’s been there with the core group of this young team, is the one who will take them back to the promised land. For fans of a team that hasn’t won a Cup in my lifetime, it feels wrong to preach patience, but every once in awhile, that’s exactly what’s needed.