Being at the Air Canada Centre, it was a sight (and obviously) sound that’s all-too familiar to Toronto Maple Leafs fans. Early deficits in critical playoff-stretch games. Mock cheering of a young goaltender who was the figurative toast of the town twelve months ago. And the considerable desire, maybe overwhelming, for a fanbase to rid itself of its head coach — a man with far more accomplishments, bar none, in the sport of ice hockey than any of his players, any of his assistants, and certainly any of his bosses in a crowded Maple Leafs executive box.
You can have Burke’s lone Stanley Cup ring — credit for that, it certainly was an impressive accomplishment, I mean that. Burke gets credit for being on the positive receiving end of the Chris Pronger trade which Pronger and agent commandeered to get himself out of Edmonton after one lone season when Pronger and company won fifteen playoff games — fifteen more than Edmonton (or Toronto, for that matter) has won since then. Burke convinced Scott Niedermayer to join his brother Rob in Anaheim and the Pronger/Niedermayer combo, together and or separate was fearsome, and with Burke inheriting a truly elite goalie at the time in J.S. Giguere, and young and developing players like Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, and Chris Kunitz, along with hungry-to-win veteran Teemu Selaane, it was a great recipe for success.
Ron Wilson has no Stanley Cup ring, and it’s very, very unlikely he ever will have one. Pat Quinn doesn’t have one. Bryan Murray doesn’t have one. Pat Burns got one very late in his career in New Jersey in 2003. Would you honestly think LESS of Pat Burns and his coaching acumen if he didn’t have one? Exactly. If I could think of a team Ron Wilson’s had with even close to the ammunition necessary to win the Stanley Cup, I’d offer it up to you.
As it was, Wilson got a rag-tag group to the Finals in 1998 with the Washington Capitals. It was mostly an aging group, but Olaf Kolzig caught fire, and the Eastern Conference was notably weak, with Pittsburgh, Toronto, and Boston yet to really rise up as they would at the end of the 20th Century. Wilson, two years, prior won the 1996 World Cup with what many thought was an inferior club to Canada’s, Russia’s, and even Sweden’s. Jeremy Roenick missed the tournament as he was unsigned and he was never in better form than in the 1995-96 season and the playoffs as well.
Wilson would repeat that international success two years ago in Vancouver, taking a team many pegged for 5th, with the unspeakable tragedy of Brendan Burke’s deadly car accident casting a dark spectre over the team’s grieving general manager, and by osmosis, all of USA Hockey, and they were a bounce away from defeating Canada for not only the Gold Medal, but also a second straight victory over Team Canada on their soil in seven days.
So you won’t convince me Ron Wilson cannot coach. But you’ll also struggle to convince me he can now coach THIS Maple Leafs team, and coach it successfully. The walls are closing in, the demons are conspiring, and the villagers are at the gates, with torches light. They want blood, and they want a scalp, and I won’t even tell you that a coaching change isn’t justified. It very well may be.
But I know Ron Wilson can get a team to overachieve and win sudden-death hockey games. We’ve seen it. I know Ron Wilson can get a team to overachieve and make a Stanley Cup Finals. We’ve seen that, too. What I have yet to see is that Brian Burke can build an NHL roster from scratch after imploding it and even now RETURN it to the mediocrity is was mired in when he arrived. The mediocrity that allows over half of the teams in the NHL to make the playoffs. Not 38 percent like the NFL, not 26 percent like Major League Baseball…..54 percent of NHL teams make the playoffs every year. His haven’t yet in three successive springs, and we’re all dreading the notion that the dawning of the fourth straight empty spring in the Burke regime is upon us, and the seventh for the Leafs, and the eighth since there was an actual playoff game.
Think about it, autumn will come and three ENTIRE Summer Olympics (Athens 2004, Beijing 2008, London 2012) will ALL have passed without the Maple Leafs having played a single playoff game. 28 teams of the 30 have played in them. 19 of the 30 teams have won at least a playoff round, and 10 of the 30 SINCE the lockout have played in the Stanley Cup Finals. We already know that 90 teams have played in Stanley Cup Finals since the Maple Leafs last did. Brian Burke likes to remind fans (besides the fact that the media strongly influences how you think and feel about the sport you’ve grown up with) that he’s not operating on the same clock most Leafs fans are.
No, but he is on his own clock. And for all the things, like him or not, we have seen Ron Wilson do. We’re still not sure, as I mentioned if Burke can win here. We’re not even sure if he can make the playoffs here. We’ve been told over and over again by Burke apologists that the 91 point team he inherited was awful, so terrible, so dreadful and it needed to be detonated. He’s done that. A good move here, a bad move there. A skillful trade here, a bizarrely awful UFA signing there, and I don’t think at this point in time I need to elaborate any further on his goaltenders. In his entire run as GM in the NHL, over a dozen years now — you can only point to Giguere as an A-list goalie and he was well-entrenched, and had gone to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals already when Burke arrived. Ask yourself this? Who’s the second-best goalie Burke’s ever had play for one of his teams and if you even have a name, was the goalie even remotely in his prime? You’ll wrestle with yourself for days on that one, trust me.
And then there are the players? I never question effort, but I’m happy to question skill, and more than happy to question when players seem to be losing focus and drifting. Many a Maple Leaf is right now. Mikhail Grabovski is about to scoreless for FEBRUARY. No goals. None of any kind. No deflections. No power-play goals. None that bounce in off his ass. NONE. Oh, Mikhail — here’s that $22 million you wanted guaranteed over 4 years!!! Are the Happy Meal toys for girls or boys? He’s vanished. All after being night in and night out the best player the Leafs had last season.
Nikolai Kulemin, like him a lot — had an idea he’d score 35-38 goals this season. He has an outside chance now of reaching double-digits. I can’t possibly find record of a player in his 20s, fully healthy, not traded, no great reduction in ice time, slipping from 30 goals to single-digits. Ever. History of the modern era. I can’t explain it and no one can.
Luke Schenn’s had a terrible season. John-Michael Liles…a lot to like, I suppose, was gift-wrapped by Burke a pricey 4-year contract while out of the lineup long-term with a concussion, and I’m still not sure he’s as right as he’d like to be out there….he is working his way back into “game shape” as well. Colby Armstrong’s been an absolute zero since becoming a Leaf. A complete and utter waste of a $9 million contract, and despite my protestations, it’s clear the player Mike Komisarek was, is likely never to be again and an awful lot of GMs knew that on July 1, 2009, with the exception of Brian Burke.
So I know what Ron Wilson is and has accomplished. He may not ever get into the Hockey Hall of Fame, but his candidacy and merits for such will be discussed. He will be a lock for the US Hockey Hall Of Fame. And it’s possible, oh extremely possible — who am I kidding, that his friend and current boss, Brian Burke, who will soon fire Wilson if not later, then sooner, will politick his way into the Hall as well, and in all honesty, he probably does belong there, but NOT as much as Wilson does.
So Ron Wilson will get the heave-ho soon enough, and I admit, it isn’t working out here, but at no point has he ever been given a roster which has been in the upper half of the NHL in terms of talent, and for that alone, he should bear little responsibility for the lack of playoff games at the ACC. Making the playoffs any of the previous three seasons would have been a staggering overachievement. I’d also point out his much-maligned San Jose Sharks days are well in the rearview mirror when he had to fight off powers like Detroit and Colorado and Dallas, and one-year wonders like Calgary in 2004 and Edmonton in 2006. Since Wilson was fired four years ago, Sharks coach Todd McLellan has gotten San Jose no closer to the Stanley Cup Finals than Wilson got them, and the Sharks have crashed embarrassingly so in the last two Western Conference Finals, even after acquiring a Stanley Cup-winning goaltender in Antii Niemi, a luxury Wilson never had in San Jose, making do with middle-of-the-roaders like Evgeni Nabokov and (gulp!) Vesa Toskala.
It’s the right thing to do to fire Ron Wilson soon and it may happen even before the Saturday game in Montreal. Burke will bluster on about pressures in Toronto and sometimes there needs to be “change for the sake of change”, but Wilson faced an unwinnable battle here, despite at times, being far too combative with some of the swamp rats and sewer creatures who exist in the Toronto media (there are more good people than bad people in it, I swear….).
He’ll leave being considered for long-term honours and Hockey Halls, as mentioned. Will any of his current players which Brian Burke has assembled? You might want Phil Kessel (who’s had an impressive year given his God-given abilities) as an outside bet for the HHOF someday, but if I look real hard, I have a tough time finding busts of Rob Brown or Tony Tanti. OK, ok…low blow…Phil’s better than they were, but collecting three points out of a possible twenty-two is leaving everyone with frayed nerves, don’t you agree?