TORONTO – After spending a few seasons overhauling the roster, Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke was finally satisfied with how his team looked at the all-star break last season.
Since then, Toronto has rebounded back to respectability in the Eastern Conference. Burke rewarded Ron Wilson for the turnaround, confirming Monday that the veteran coach has signed a contract extension with the team.
“This coach has earned this extension,” Burke said. “It’s not charity, it’s not a gift.”
The Maple Leafs have not made the playoffs in three seasons under Wilson, who is 119-120-42 overall with Toronto.
But the team appears to be on track to change that this season.
Entering Monday night’s games, the Leafs were sixth in the East with 40 points. Wilson has also guided the club to a 36-22-10 record since the all-star break.
“It’s pretty impressive, it’s certainly a healthy clip,” Burke said.
Burke confirmed the deal during the second intermission of Monday’s AHL game between the Toronto Marlies and the Hamilton Bulldogs at Air Canada Centre, but did not reveal contract details.
The 56-year-old Wilson was in the final season of a four-year deal.
“When the coach goes into the cage, he needs the chair and the whip—not just one,” Burke said. “It’s not enough to just be the coach for the rest of the season in my opinion.
“So I think it’s an important statement. I think there’s a respect level involved and I think it was the right thing to do.”
Wilson tweeted a day earlier that he got his wish of a new deal. He had hinted last week that he wanted a new contract from Santa Claus for Christmas.
“‘He came! He came!’ Remember saying that as a little kid? Well he did: I got a new Red Ryder BB gun and a contract extension!” Wilson posted Sunday on his official Twitter account.
Wilson said the quest for results remains just as high, even with the increased contract security.
“I’ve seen lots of coaches get fired this year with lots of (contract) term left, so the pressure doesn’t change,” he said after the Leafs practised Monday. “It’s still the same. I could get fired next week for all I know. So I have a little bit of combat pay coming in other words.
“That’s kind of the way I look at it.”
Burke said he worked out the deal with Wilson about three or four weeks ago. The GM added it was up to Wilson when he wanted to make the news public.
“Ron elected to release it in the last couple of days and that’s fine with me,” Burke said.
Wilson has also coached in Anaheim, Washington and San Jose. Over 18 seasons, he has a career coaching record of 637-546 with 101 ties and 88 overtime losses.
“He hasn’t been out of work very long,” Burke said. “There’s a reason for that. The hockey community believes in this guy.”
While Wilson has yet to win a Stanley Cup as a coach, Burke feels he has Hall of Fame credentials.
“Ron Wilson is in the top 10 in every category in the history of the league in terms of coaching,” Burke said.
Fans have had a mixed view of Wilson’s performance since his arrival in Toronto.
His future is regularly debated on sports radio talk shows in the hockey-mad city. Chants of “Fire Wilson” have also been heard at Air Canada Centre over the years since he has been unable to get the Leafs to the post-season.
However, Burke said there are usually clear signs when it’s time to make a coaching change and he hasn’t seen them.
“You have agents calling you and complaining that the players don’t like the coach and aren’t going to play for him,” Burke said. “You have what we call snipers—unnamed players taking shots—and there has been none of that since I’ve been here.
“In fact, I had players come to me last year telling me, ‘Don’t change the coach.’ So it hasn’t been nearly as big an issue or a debate as it’s been outside the room or outside of our organization.”