TORONTO – There’s no statistical way to measure what Ron Wilson considers his biggest success so far with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
While future seasons will be about lowering the team’s goals-against average and improving the penalty kill, Wilson’s first year with the Maple Leafs was focused on something quite different – eliminating what he refers to as a “culture of entitlement.”
He scratched veterans and offered blunt assessments of the the team’s performance. He questioned the fitness of his players and constantly reminded everyone that his squad was rebuilding.
And after Toronto wrapped up its regular season with a 5-2 victory over Ottawa on Saturday night, Wilson sounded satisfied when asked if he had shaken things up enough.
“I think generally, yeah,” said Wilson. “I think our players have a sense of responsibility to their teammates that I didn’t sense earlier in the year.
“How they play night to night, they know they’re going to be held accountable. But that’s a positive force for a lot of guys – and it showed in how some people responded.”
The coaching style wasn’t always received well inside and outside of the Leafs dressing room, but that was never of concern to Wilson. He has the confidence that comes with job security – Leafs GM Brian Burke also hired him to coach the 2010 U.S. Olympic team – and will be given a couple years to see the rebuilding project through.
During his first season in Toronto, Wilson often alluded to the importance of patience. He didn’t see any point in trying to make up for a shortage of skill by having his team try and sit on leads.
Instead, he focused on bringing his younger players along and coaxing the maximum effort out of his entire lineup each and every night. As a result, he didn’t see a second straight 12th-place finish in the Eastern Conference as a disappointment.
“You can look back and say there are few ‘what ifs’ – if we’d done this or that,” said Wilson. “But all and all, seeing our young players develop this year is really gratifying. It gives us a base to build on next year. We’ve identified some people we think we can build our team around in the future and lots of pieces I think that we still have to add.
“I think all and all I’m generally pleased with the effort from the start to (the finish).”
Even though the players will technically have the next five months off, Wilson wants them to be working harder than ever. He’s instituted a new type of fitness testing and expects the results to be much better in September than they were in March.
Wilson claims that his players in Toronto scored lower than the ones in the other places he’s coached.
“What I’ve told our team all along, we’ve got to start training and driving ourselves to become elite athletes, forget the hockey part,” said Wilson. “I mean I’m not going to put the numbers out there but we’re nowhere near an elite team when it comes to your max VO2 (maximum heart rate) and your overall conditioning, which doesn’t come from a hockey season. It comes from your work habits that you put yourself through in the summertime.
“My God, if you haven’t made the playoffs in the three of four years, those four or five months that you have you ought to put them to good use.”
The message seems to have been heard loud and clear.
There really wasn’t a player on the Leafs roster that completely escaped some criticism from the coach during the season – either directly or indirectly. While that was tough for some to take, many of them ended up seeing some method in the approach.
A prime example of that is Matt Stajan, who found himself as a healthy scratch early in the season and a top-line player later on. When everything was said and done, he ended up with a career-best 55 points.
“I’ve had my best year as a Leaf and Ron’s been my coach,” said Stajan. “I can’t really complain. To sit here and say him sitting me at the start of the year was a bad thing, maybe it wasn’t. It got me going and proved to have my best year personally.”
Wilson also showed a softer side to his players from time to time.
“I think he’s pretty intense,” said forward Lee Stempniak. “He’s demanding and part of that is driving a hard line and being tough on players to bring the most out of them. At the same time, it’s not like he’s a jerk or someone you don’t want to be around.
“He’s got a human side.”
That wasn’t always evident to those on the outside.
Even though some didn’t approve of Wilson’s coaching style – Don Cherry criticized him for it several times on “Hockey Night in Canada” – it can at least be said that he was hard on everyone. No player was off limits.
“Obviously, Ron’s held everybody accountable,” said Stajan. “If he thinks you’re not playing well, you’re not going to play. I think a lot of guys have learned that the hard way this year.
“That’s the way his coaching style is. You know, whether you like it or not, he’s going to be the coach here and we’ve got to make sure we play hard for each other and show results and make sure we’re in a better spot next year.”
On that issue, the players might not totally be on the same page as their coach.
Wilson has cautioned that next year’s team might be much better than this year’s version. One thing everyone in the organization can agree on is the direction things have to go.
“We want to take this team back to where it used to be,” said Wilson. “Where it used to be I guess in the 60’s, the last time the Leafs won the Stanley Cup.
“We can’t guarantee Stanley Cups but we want to put ourselves obviously in a position where we challenge every year.”