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So there it is. Ron Wilson has been fired. All the great ones get fired. Scotty Bowman in Buffalo….Bryan Murray in Detroit, Mike Keenan in (insert any of seven North American NHL markets here). Some of you will take great umbrage with describing Ron Wilson as a “great” coach. And that’s fair, but you don’t last as long as Wilson has in the NHL, with a tremendous international coaching resume as well by being a BAD coach.
I don’t need to defend his resume here as I’ve done previously so I won’t, but he is a lock to go into the US Hockey Hall of Fame and in the NHL, his most impressive accomplishments still remain taking the 1998 Washington Capitals, a 90 point regular season team to the Stanley Cup Finals, and winning five playoff rounds in four straight seasons with the San Jose Sharks, with the average-at-best Evgeni Nabokov as their starting goaltender.
Did he make mistakes here in Toronto? Oh sure, but I’d still maintain the same consistent comments I always have regarding Ron Wilson’s near-four year tenure in Toronto.
1. He had a team with “bottom ten” talent his first three season as head coach, and MAYBE this season, you could make a passable argument he has a roster (goaltending excepted) that is middle-of-the-pack, which of course sees its success compromised frequently by, for a fourth straight season substandard goaltending.
2. He never truly had a chance at making the playoffs with the Toronto Maple Leafs and had he made it this year, there’s no question that of the eight teams he’s coached into the NHL playoffs before (pre-Cap and post-Cap), this would have been the weakest club overall…yes, CERTAINLY including the 1996-97 Anaheim Mighty Ducks.
3. Was he abrasive too often and far too obsessed with making certain members of the media part of the story? Sure, he was. He handed Toronto poorly, no question. His boss is currently not handling Toronto much better, but where Burke has humour and charm to go with his outlandish beliefs about how chronically difficult it is to build a winning hockey team here (something he dared not suggest when he was first hired and introduced), Wilson simply seemed pissed off at it all. It was like a bad first date in some circumstances, but unlike those when you know there’s an end in sight, you somehow wake up with that person the next morning, and the next, and the next, and the next.
4. Me personally? I must have done 60-70 radio interviews with him, first at AM640, then later at Sportsnet 590, The Fan, including having a couple in-person visits with him. I never found him rude and abrasive towards me….if I asked a bad question I was never demeaned, as I’ve seen him to do to some, or he simply didn’t find it as bad or grating or mind-numbingly repetitive as he clearly has with others in this market. I make it a point to not play favourites in this business. But Ron never treated me terribly or embarrassed me, so I can honestly say I had no issue with his personality. Yet others did and I totally understood why. Why he chose to engage, again, some of the muckrackers and holier-than-thou members of the Toronto media is absolutely beyond me. I struggle with it sometimes too, far more so earlier in my career, but you simply have to not get into pissing matches with skunks. You’ll smell terrible at the end, win or lose.
I can tell you that Randy Carlyle has been in Brian Burke’s sightlines for a long time. Not quite from the moment he got to Toronto, but I had a “hockey person” I respect immensely (currently not a co-worker) tell me in Spring 2010, even, that were Carlyle to come available that summer in 2010, and certainly last summer, Brian Burke would have fired Ron Wilson then. Burke truly believes Carlyle is a superior coach. Hell, Burke believes he’s a superior coach to Mike Babcock, the coach he inherited in Anaheim. The coach who’s won the Stanley Cup, the Olympic Gold Medal, and gone to two other Stanley Cup Final Game 7s? All within the last 8 seasons? Burke gave Babcock a half-hearted one-year extension and soon after, the Red Wings had kicked Dave Lewis to the curb after two disappointing playoff campaigns and Babcock is probably now the most “un-fireable” head coach in the NHL, and maybe one of the most so in all of North American sports (Bill Belichick and Gregg Popovich I’d lump in there with him).
So we’ll see — I have no personal experience with Carlyle. In scrums or in my lone one-on-one with him at a rink, he’s cordial, dry, tight-lipped, and won’t be either humourous or cuttingly sarcastic as Wilson was. Some of you will think he’s less of an asshole, others of you will find him remarkably boring.
The stupid thing is assessing whether he can “handle the market”, and given some of the ludicrous notions Burke has unleased both pre and post-trade deadline, he has some of his loyalists and water-carriers suggesting that a coach’s personality matters here.
If Ron Wilson had won a Stanley Cup in Toronto, you wouldn’t care who he treated badly, in fact as was the case with a couple run-ins with reporters, he’d be vociferously applauded for it. Pat Burns is praised universally for his time here, but he had his moments of losing his temper and treating people badly, and it was patently obvious many of his players in Toronto were sick of his act by the spring of 1996. You couldn’t meet a nicer guy than Paul Maurice, and a funny guy as well (for those slightly above the level of fart and dick jokes mind you), and most of you celebrated his firing because you thought he was a bad coach, not because he had kids who’d have to change not just school districts, but an entire nation to continue their education in.
But this team and these players had begun to tune Wilson out. There are two things I’m very firm on: Ron Wilson did not want Tim Connolly to be signed by the Maple Leafs, and Wilson was not as enthusiastic as Brian Burke was about Dion Phaneuf becoming captain of this hockey team. I still maintain, if Mike Komisarek had become the player Brian Burke paid for here, there’s every likelihood that Komisarek would have worn the “C”…not as a star player but as a dressing room leader, great with a quote, and great in the community. I am not saying Dion Phaneuf can’t grow to be those things, but I’m skeptical. Burke has failed Phaneuf and thus, failed Wilson by not placing other leaders in the sport who had “been there, done that” (let alone gone to a Stanley Cup Final) to support Phaneuf in leading the dressing room, and now, it is obvious to all who cover the team that despite that the current slump may have escalated it, there hasn’t been tremendous harmony in the Leafs room at all times this season, and there may not be until Phaneuf can be properly held in check by either younger players already here, or veterans with important and meaningful voices from other rooms across the league.
As for Wilson, he did seem to age quite a bit through his four seasons in Toronto. Again, he had no chance to make a winner out of the players he was given here by Brian Burke (and yes, to some extent, Cliff Fletcher during that magical 2008 summer). So do I approve of the change? Yes and no. Yes, because it’s the only way into the postseason this year, and it’s still going to be a dogfight even if everything goes right for the Leafs…they had no chance to make it if Wilson stays. No, because Wilson’s tenure here will be deemed by some as a failure, when in reality, the resources were never there to be a success.
Randy Carlyle DOES have a Stanley Cup ring, but he also took over a team absolutely loaded in 2005-06 for playoff success, achieved by Babcock a couple years earlier. Since Anaheim won the Cup in 2007, Carlyle’s Ducks are 11-14 in the postseason, missing the playoffs once, and they surely would have missed (and almost certainly still are) had he stayed.
Ron Wilson’s four seasons prior to coming to Toronto left him with a 28-24 postseason record, SEVENTEEN more wins than Carlyle’s Ducks over the same period, so be very careful about judging Carlyle as a more successful postseason coach. Does one Stanley Cup ring make for a great coach? It’s a dangerous observation to make.