It’s no secret that Ron Wilson has wanted a coaching extension with the Toronto Maple Leafs for some time, and it’s no secret that the local media has had a spat with the current management regime. So it wasn’t a surprise, when, presumably in the middle of negotiations, Ron Wilson sent a tweet out via his account offering his Christmas wishes to his league of Twitter followers:
Less surprising was the response from trolling Damien Cox, who offered his valuable perspective:
Anyway, Ron Wilson got his wish on Christmas morning, taking to his Twitter account again, to announce he had earned a contract extension (along with a Red Ryder BB gun) without the benefit of a Leafs press release to the media. Leafs General Manager Brian Burke confirmed the extension on Twitter, with no details released (as of 7 pm Christmas night) to the media about the extension.
Wilson is in the final season of a four-year contract and currently has the Leafs sixth in the Eastern Conference with 40 points. Toronto has not made the playoffs in three prior seasons under Wilson.
The Leafs have yet to officially comment on the new deal. Speculation had mounted in the last week that Burke was waiting for the right moment to announce a new deal for Wilson, whose current deal expires at the end of this season.
The first line in that second quoted graf is telling of something, mainly, that the Leafs executives are using their personal Twitter accounts to break news rather than go through traditional public relations departments. That’s good for those of us in the online news business, who no longer need access to the team’s secretaries to report a breaking story. From a hockey ops perspective, this is an interesting move for the Leafs for a couple of reasons:
The main contention that haunts Wilson as the coach of the Leafs is the penalty kill: Toronto has been awful since the arrival of Wilson, finishing 30th, 30th and 28th since Wilson debuted as coach. This season, despite an 18-13-4 record that has the Leafs at 6th place in the Eastern Conference, the Leafs are again last place with penalty killing.
There’s some debate as to whether or not that the Leafs’ awfulness when they’re down at least a man is due to the system that Wilson has set up, or to the personnel he’s had to deal with. Some evidence points to the latter, as Wilson’s San Jose Sharks were 1st in the league in penalty kill in 2008, although the ’07 version of the club was just 14th in the league in that department.
Penalty-killing ability, particularly on the team level, fluctuates wildly from year to year, because there’s so little time in the scheme of things spent at 4-on-5 that a few unlucky bounces can ruin a team’s fortunes for the season—a full season of 4-on-5, at an average of 5 minutes a game, equals fewer than 10 games at even strength, where teams play for results far better or worse than their true talent level.
Toronto are middle-of-the-road as far as giving up shots on the penalty kill, and have been for their previous years as well under Wilson. His failings as a coach, much like his success with San Jose, is probably more due to the fact that he never got an NHL-calibre goaltender until last January in the blue and white.
Another worry here is that, despite the franchise’s inability to get Wilson quality players until this season, rewarding a coach for a limited record of success (to put it mildly) sets an poor precedent for the rest of the Brian Burke tenure. You don’t necessarily want to reward a lack of success. Even though Randy Carlyle got fired in Anaheim after earning a contract in the offseason, Burke is too moral and honourable of a General Manager (one of his failings) to allow the same to happen to Wilson. This is really a pre-mature reward for the optimistic belief that Toronto will stay in playoff position and have a few more games in late April.
However, when you think of the very best organizations in the league, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Vancouver, they’ve had continuity behind the bench for some years now. Bad teams that have coaching carousels such as Ottawa, Calgary or the New York Islanders continue being bad teams despite employing fresh faces behind the bench whenever the wind changes direction. I’m not sold that coaches can really determine a team’s fortunes once we’re at the NHL level, but walking in to work every day and seeing the same face in charge can keep an employee in any field focused. Not a single member of the young and emerging corps of the Toronto Maple Leafs—42-28-11 in the 81 games since the arrival of James Reimer—has played for a Leafs coach other than Wilson. And since Wilson has had a real NHL goalie to write in on the lineup card, his team has played at a playoff pace (96.2 points per 82). That said, the Leafs’ underlying numbers are slightly more modest: the team has a 47.5% possession (score-tied Corsi) differential in those 81 games and an elevated, yet not unsustainable, 101.7% PDO, which adds up the team’s shooting and save percentages. How much of that is thanks to Wilson, well, it doesn’t look like we’ll get to compare his performance with anybody else’s anytime soon.
To suggest that Wilson is the root cause behind the Leafs’ failings is something that stems from a grudge from the way that the team is run. He is the reason for being out of the playoffs for the last three years about as much as he was the reason for the team being out of the playoffs for the three years before he was hired. The team has been terrible until about halfway through last season. Has he earned an extension? No. The extension shows Brian Burke’s commitment to “his guys” because he’s loyal to a fault. The reward is pre-mature, but Toronto is on the right path, and establishing continuity with the minute bit of success that the team has enjoyed in the last 359 days isn’t a bad thing. I guess it shows that the organization is committed to the guys who bit the bullet for the team coming out of the John Ferguson Jr./Cliff Fletcher/Paul Maurice era.
Now, they still need to fix the bloody penalty-killing, and neither Reimer nor Wilson have come close to providing an answer to that, but one step at a time, I guess.