Good, Bad, or Ugly?: The Ron Wilson Question Pt. I

West Coast hockey gets short thrift in Toronto, until one of their coaches potentially gets hired by MLSE, so it can sometimes be tough to form opinions on the people that operate in the relative vacuum of the 10PM EST puck drop. In those cases, it's best to get your information straight from the horse's mouth or, in this case, the blogger's fingers before it gets wrung through the Negative Nellies in the media. This is the first of a few West Coast perspectives on the Leafs' apparent new coach.

One of the features that I did ocassionally last year, and will hopefully resurrect, involved reaching out to fellow bloggers to answer five questions. For this first look at Ron Wilson I am glad to have Mike Chen contributing his knowledge. You can read his work on the Sharks and the NHL at his personal blog as well as the Battle of California. He's also a contributor to FOXSports.com so he's kind of a big deal.

It looks like Ron Wilson might be the kind of coach that this team has been crying out for since Pat Burns left the team. There is definitely another side to all of the negative press that Wilson has been receiving and some of it seems to fit in well with the rebuilding Leafs. I especially like the comment that Wilson could work to weed out the young players that can't hack it. Don't ask for whom the Taco Bell tolls Wellwood because it tolls for thee!

1. What was your overall impression of Ron Wilson's time as the Sharks' coach? The media consensus in Toronto has quickly become that he was a coach that had a super talented team but wasn't able to get them to perform. Is that a fair assessment? 
I think the thing with Wilson, and Caps fans will probably tell you the same thing, is that he's a combination of innovation and attitude that has a relatively short life span. In his first full season with the Sharks, he got a Joe Thornton-less team to buy into a hard-skating puck-possession game that went to the Conference Finals. The problem is the attitude. While Wilson is a great quote for the media, he's also got a really snarky personality that sometimes makes him seem like a player's coach and sometimes makes him seem like a big jerk. I got the sense that this confused players, especially some of the younger ones, and made them basically walk on eggshells. He's really smart, but sometimes I wonder how much of what he says is calculated and how much is just his ego spitting out sarcasm.

Tactically, he's pretty damn smart and he's not afraid to change things drastically. The problem with him is that he's also really stubborn, and if he believes that something will work, he will stick with it even when it's fairly clear that it isn't and won't work. So his effectiveness is kind of like a bell curve that's been significantly pushed to the left.
 2. The Leafs are moving towards a much younger roster with an eye towards building a young core of players that will be able to compete for the Cup in a couple (if lucky) seasons.  How would you rate Wilson's ability to work with and develop young players? 
It's a mixed bag. The great thing about Wilson is that he will give you an opportunity to prove yourself in a critical situation, and if he sees you rise to the occasion, he'll ride you till there's no tomorrow. Sharks fans can tell you about how he transformed the skilled-but-enigmatic Alex Korolyuk into a speedy and reliable player in a single shift: with the game on the line in a critical penalty kill situation, he tapped Korolyuk on the shoulder and told him that his team was relying on him to kill that penalty (even though he wasn't a regular penalty killer). Korolyuk took that opportunity to transform his game and was probably the Sharks' best forward the rest of that season before he went to Russia.

On the other hand, Wilson isn't afraid to punish -- or almost humiliate -- players both on the bench and in the media. He's not like Ted Nolan, who can cultivate inspiration in just about anyone. He's not quite as brutal as Mike Keenan, either, whose jerkness beat some players down but created superstars in Chris Pronger, Jeremy Roenick, and Joe Thornton. I get the sense that Wilson will make one of
Toronto's underachieving players a great but not spectacular player, but he will also shellshock some of the younger guys who aren't quite sure how to deal with his approach.
3. The culture around the Leafs has been, rightly so, labelled a country club. Even though Maurice made improvements in terms of the team's training regime there was still a general lack of accountability other than the Carolina guys (Battaglia and O'Neill). How does Wilson handle underachieving players? and how did that approach affect his relationship with Patrick Marleau?
San Jose hasn't been a country club since coach Darryl Sutter took over in the late 90s. Under Doug and Ron Wilson, there was accountability and public admission of failures and needs. It's just the execution wasn't right. Doug and Ron worked really closely together, but considering the bureaucracy of Toronto, there's no telling what's going to happen. Ron may just get flustered at having to ultimately answer to an interim GM and a committee, and he may just start lashing out at the media.

Regarding Patrick Marleau, it's a hit-and-miss history. Under Wilson, Marleau became an 80-point guy and realized his potential. However, the fallout from Wilson's public flogging of Marleau after the 07 playoffs stretched well into this season (and, in my estimation, contributed greatly to the inconsistency by the whole team). In fact, I'm guessing Marleau turned his season around in spite of Wilson rather than because of him, though Wilson was certainly publicly appreciative when Marleau became the team's best player in the playoffs.

The thing with underachieving players or players who make bonehead gaffes, every personality and situation is different. You can't just apply a blanket approach to every situation and expect it to always work. The best coaches understand this and will create a customized solution to get the best out of every player. As far as I can tell, Wilson's stubborness tends to be more black-and-white. Maybe he'll have learned his lesson from the Marleau incident, but I'm guessing not.
4. The Toronto media can make playing for the Leafs a fish bowl. Do you think that Wilson can survive in an environment that can often become toxic and give rise to personal vendettas?
I think Wilson will either thrive in the crazy environment or he'll spend the whole time tossing sarcastic barbs to the media while the team implodes. The problem is that the Toronto media analyzes and explodes everything that's said, and Wilson absolutely loves the sound of his own voice. That could either work in his favor, especially in the beginning, but ultimately, unless the team is winning, I can see that being a poisonous combination that will lead to a spectacular (at least from the outside) meltdown.
5. Any advice/warnings for Leaf fans?
Just get ready for a lot of interesting quotes in the paper that will probably be taken out of context and spun into something bigger and worse than it is. As long as the Leafs struggle, the media war will be pretty ugly, especially when Wilson gets frustrated with his players. During his first partial season with the Sharks (the year Sutter was fired), Wilson bitched and moaned a lot while preaching his system. The Bay Area media noted it but it often took a backseat to the NFL and MLB, and when the team went to the Conference Finals, Wilson was very "I told you so" to people. I doubt he'll get that leeway in Toronto.

 It's gonna be interesting in TO, that's for sure.
Parting Shots 
Oh, one more thing to note. Every coach obviously has a shelf life, and while I may seem pretty harsh on Wilson, I do think he's a good coach, just not a flawless coach. I think his shelf life is accelerated because of his attitude, though, and unless he changes his prickly personality, you'll see higher peaks and frustrating lows probably faster than other coaches.

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