NHL break ups between GMs and Coaches really aren’t that different. For weeks the media hounds both Coach and GM as the team (let's think of the team as the “relationship” – bear with me, it was a weak metaphor to start with) sorely struggles and drops further and further in the standings. Of course both Coach and GM will claim there is nothing wrong – “we are just working on things” they will say, “we can get through this”. Truth is, once a relationship starts on the dark path towards breaking up, it’s nearly impossible to avoid the inevitable end.
Ron Wilson and Brian Burke have reached the tipping point in their partnership as Maple Leafs Head Coach and GM. It’s setting up to be an unfortunate end to a 2 year relationship that began with so much promise and excitement.
Like any young romance, we in the city of Toronto immediately fell in love with Ron Wilson when he was named bench-boss of the Buds on June 10th, of 2008. He brought with him impeccable credentials, having coached over 1000 games in the NHL and even making a trip to the cup Finals with the Washington Capitals in 1998.
He was tough, honest, and candid in his approach to the team. Unlike his predecessor Paul Maurice, Wilson wasn’t scared to call out his players after a bad game. He guaranteed a culture change, vowing to create an atmosphere of hard work and bring a winning attitude to a dressing room stuffed with veterans simply playing out their contracts (yes, Darcy Tucker, I’m starring directly at you). It was refreshing, and exciting to finally have a guy in town who wasn’t afraid to stand up to his players and the media.
I admit, I completely bought into the strong, united front that Burke and Wilson presented. They were pure “hockey guys” displaying the bravado and pugnacity people in hockey always talk about being so essential to winning. The sad thing, for us as Leaf fans, is we hired two guys perfectly suited for the old NHL. As much as parts of the league before the lockout have carried over to the new NHL, post 2004, many things have changed. It’s now a game based on speed, precision and skill – unlike the clutch and grab game of the 1990s that required large doses of size and brute strength to succeed.
Brian Burke certainly hasn’t helped Wilson’s situation down in the trenches – stuffing his defensive core with oversized veterans lacking foot speed, of course I’m excluding Schenn (although that was a Cliff Fetcher move). Compounding the problem is the fact our forwards lack the skill, size, and speed to keep up with the top 2 lines of premier teams in the league. It likely doesn’t matter who is coaching at this moment, Tyler Bozak is not going to shut down guys like Crosby, Datysuk, or Thornton any night, ever.
Given the way the roster looks today I don’t blame Wilson for losing hockey games – we quite simply aren’t good enough right now to contend for a playoff spot – and I accept that. Brian Burke will need to right the ship and figure out what the appropriate next steps are from a personnel perspective. But it’s not Brian Burke’s job to directly manage the team development (specifically the young players) and chemistry in the room – and this is where Wilson has colossally failed us as a coach.
Like many blow hard head coaches he relies largely on intimidation to motivate his players to perform at peak levels. However, the Leafs are a young team that still needs to be taught the game. Wilson’s focus should be teaching his players how to succeed – rather than berating them publicly when they don’t. Coaches like Ron Wilson, Joel Quenneville, Ken Hitchcock...etc can be effective, but more so on talented veteran laden teams that are on the cusp of a championship. Rather than yelling at his players to work harder he should be showing them how to “work smarter”. Whether that is through off ice training, offensive schemes, or special teams systems on the PP and penalty kill. It’s even to the point where he won’t acknowledge his own shortcomings – taking time in press conferences to defend his ego, rather than address issues with his coaching.
The break up will be hard for Leaf fans – admitting to ourselves and the league that we had the wrong coach for this team won’t be easy. But there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and like all breakups we will eventually bounce back. For the remainder of this season we can bring in a solid interim head coach, someone laid back to take some pressure off the kids and let them just play hockey for a change. By the time the draft rolls around, with a few astute moves by Burke our new permanent head coach can start next season with a core of young kids ready to build towards the future.
If you're reading this Ron, please don’t take it too hard – in the end it’s not you, it’s the Leafs – and you’re just not the right man for this team.