NFL legend Vince Lombardi, arguably the greatest coach in any sport, once said, “the difference between a successful person and others is not a lack of strength, not a lack of knowledge, but rather in a lack of will.”
That’s something to remember the next time you turn on sports radio or log in to an Internet message board and get bombarded with “fire Ron Wilson” sentiments. Because, for as easy as it is to look at Wilson’s record as coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs and say he deserves to be jettisoned after this season ends, the harder, smarter thing to do – the real display of organizational willpower – is to bring him back for at least another season.
Despite his many detractors and a record in Toronto (89-100-33) that is nothing to brag about, Wilson should be judged by two things: firstly, the state of the franchise when he took over; and secondly the caliber of players he’s had at his disposal ever since.
Saying the Leafs were in disarray when Wilson replaced Paul Maurice in the summer of 2008 is like saying Nick Nolte had a couple of hairs out of place in this picture. Toronto’s ownership hired Wilson before current GM Brian Burke had left his old job with the Anaheim Ducks; the franchise’s stockpile of bona fide prospects was virtually bare; and the team hadn’t qualified for post-season play since the spring of 2004.
Since then, Wilson has had as motley a crew of players as any organization in the league. When Burke arrived in November of 2008, he quickly came to realize how much of the team would have to be changed; two years later, only Tomas Kaberle remains from that original group of players, and he’s likely to be dealt (most likely to Boston) before the Feb. 28 trade deadline.
No other NHL coach has had to adjust to that type of roster turnover – and do so in the blinding media spotlight of Toronto.
Look at what Wilson was able to do with a much more talented team around this time last year, when he was behind the bench guiding the U.S. men’s Olympic squad at the Vancouver Games: he drew up a tough forechecking, speedy attack that surprised more dangerous opponents (including Russia) and eventually landed the Americans second place in the tournament. When the Olympics ended, I don’t recall any American players saying they didn’t want to play for Wilson or question his tactics.
Contrast that with what Wilson had to deal with this season: a Leafs lineup that, yet again, seemed to be much less than the sum of its parts; a goaltending tandem of J-S Giguere and Jonas Gustavsson that disappointed far more often than it stole games; a defense corps that, despite taking up more than 40 percent of the team’s payroll, was ranked 21st-best in the NHL in a recent THN poll of GMs and coaches; and an offense that pales in comparison to truly elite teams such as Vancouver, Philadelphia and Detroit.
Even with all those factors lining up against him and the team, Wilson has been able to keep the Leafs competitive - not every game, of course, but enough times to make fans forgive them for the nights they’ve looked like the Washington Generals on skates.
And think of what happens if they do dismiss Wilson before his four-year contract expires in 2012: there would be another system to learn and more subsequent roster adjustments to weed out the new coach’s undesirables. Rather than speeding up Toronto’s rebuild, a change in bench bosses would only push the process back further than it’s been pushed already.
Having the organizational willpower to re-sign Wilson beyond next year - even in the midst of yet another disappointing Leafs season in which they are unlikely to make the playoffs - would show the players they don’t run the room, that management will bend over only so far to make them comfortable before they have to assume responsibility for their own efforts on the ice.
The organizations that demonstrate patience - not only with their players, but their coaches as well - establish a culture that’s conducive to winning. Those that don’t (think of the New York Islanders and the eight different coaches they’ve had in the past decade) delude themselves into believing change for change’s sake is always a good thing, when clearly it is anything but.
Wilson isn’t a media darling or a man with a Stanley Cup on his resume. But scapegoating him for the deficiencies of ownership and previous management won’t make the Leafs into champions anytime soon.
Adam Proteau, co-author of the book The Top 60 Since 1967, is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. Power Rankings appear Mondays, his blog appears Thursdays and his Ask Adam feature appears Fridays.
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