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 Jason Plank contributing his knowledge of Ron Wilson. You can read his work on the Sharks at We Bleed Teal.
The overarching theme, once again, is that Ron Wilson's effectiveness eventually wanes but his influence can have a hugely beneficial effect on the team going forward.
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'm going to start this off by saying that although I agree with the Sharks firing Wilson, that does not mean he is not a good coach. He just wasn't right for San Jose anymore. In fact we (San Jose) will be hard-pressed to find someone as capable as Wilson for next season. As for the Toronto media, their assessment is correct, but only to a point. The Sharks are a very talented team, but to label Wilson as the main reason as to why we could not advance to the Finals is short-sighted. There was definitely other factors at work here- some of our players (cough, Joe Thornton, cough) have had a rap sheet of being unable to dominate in the postseason. But that's a whole other ballgame that I doubt you guys want to hear. You've heard enough sob stories up there in Toronto (yes, that was a low blow, I'm just kidding. Well, half kidding. But I digress.)
Looking at Wilson's career stats, you see a different story than the media might paint- he's ninth in all time coaching wins, did an excellent job of winning a deep Pacific division twice (with two second place finishes as well), won his five hundredth game as an NHL coach this year, and is the Sharks all-time leader for coaching wins. The man knows how to coach. Another quality about Wilson that I really liked was his use of technology to make adjustments in the middle of games. He was one of the first (that I am aware of) to use a laptop in games in order to give his teams a better chance to win. His innovation will pay off dividends in Toronto.
The whole reason Wilson was relieved of his duties in San Jose was not because he is a subpar coach, but because three straight second round exits were a huge disappointment for all involved. The goal of getting deep in the postseason was not met. Coaches have a shelf life in the NHL. I wrote a satirical piece about it. It explains why the firing of Ron Wilson made sense from a Sharks' standpoint, but concedes that he is an excellent coach who will do well wherever he ends up.
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?
The Sharks have been blessed with having a young team for a couple years now, and in my eyes he did a solid job of developing the players into where they are now. Milan Michalek has progressed into a solid goal scorer, and our young defensive corps was second in the NHL in goals allowed. Evgeni Nabokov obviously had a lot to do with that, but our shots against this year was somewhere in the top five I believe. I'm too lazy to look it up, but I know it was up there near the top.
To touch upon Wilson's technical savvy again, his use of laptop's has to connect with the younger players. I feel that they can relate to that more so than veterans who might be a little skeptical of punching some numbers into a computer with ten minutes left in the third period down a goal.
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?
This is where things can get dicey with Wilson- his relationship with Patty was filled with tension in the media and the locker room. There was a rumor floating around that they didn't speak for a six month span at one point. What kind of message does that send the team, when your two leaders (coach and Captain) aren't on speaking terms? Imagine being in a marriage where you sleep next to each other every night and yet haven't spoken for half a year. Sounds like a divorce waiting to happen. And that's what eventually happened.
As for dealing with underperforming players, Wilson is a tough cookie. Period. There's two facets to that kind of personality. For starters you know what you're going to get with him, he's not going to be your friend, but as Herb Brooks showed us in Miracle (kind of a stretch here) sometimes that can pay off. You're hating the coach so much of the time that you don't have the time to hate each other. Obviously a double edged sword at work.
Wilson is also not afraid to call people out, both publicly and in front of the team. Numerous comments were made to the media about Patty's lackluster play. And during this year's playoff run Wilson put three players names on a whiteboard during intermission in the locker room (one of them was Michalek) and began to scream, "These are the guys that are killing us!"
In a nutshell, Wilson is a hard ass.
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?
Ah the Toronto media. I think all of my previous statements directly tie into this question. One, Wilson's penchant for calling players out in the media could start a firestorm in Toronto, as well as his motivational techniques with the players. It all really depends on how the younger players can handle the pressure of playing in Toronto, and the pressure of playing under Wilson. The heat is always turned up full blast in The Great White North as you guys know. If anything, Wilson may be a little less critical in the media because of this.
Let's be honest here - if the team is winning, everyone is happy. Anybody who heads to Toronto is aware of the circus they are getting themselves into, so I don't think that Wilson will be too flustered by it. Some may point to the fact that Wilson has been unable to lead the Sharks to a Stanley Cup, but if you're a Leaf fan, does that even concern you that much next year? The man knows how to get it done in the regular season, and that's the recipe you guys need right now.
5. Any advice/warnings for Leaf fans?
Wilson is going to be coaching with a little bit of a chip on his shoulder, an underdog role if you will. I think he's been thrown under the bus a bit when concerning his "inability" to take the Sharks to The Cup, and if you add that to the relatively low expectations for the Leafs next year, I think it makes a good combination. If the Leafs slip into the playoffs next year, I'd be far from shocked. The Sharks have had some great late season runs with Wilson at the helm, something that hopefully translates in Toronto.
Wilson also switched lines a lot during the middle of the games. Constantly making adjustments is part of his style. Sometimes that could lead to a lack of cohesion during certain games, but at the end of the day I would have to say it's a plus. Ron can exploit matchups.
What it comes down to is having young players with tough skin, and a Captain that can handle the heat. If that's the case, you guys will be fine.
You're getting a great coach assuming this deal goes through, which I think it will. Best of luck next year, and thanks for having me.