Why Brian Burke Had to Fire Ron Wilson

Brian Burke Leafs

Brian Burke fired Ron Wilson on March 2, 2012. He hired Randy Carlyle in his place. (John Cordes/Icon SMI)

This began as a look at why Ron Wilson should be relieved as coach of the Maple Leafs, which is what occurred on March 2. I’ve thought on the subject before. I had ‘waffled’ one might say.

At one time, I wanted Wilson gone. The NHLPA player poll, the losing seasons, reported friction with Kaberle and Kessel… I’d decided Wilson just wasn’t the right coach. As 2011-12 started fairly well for the Leafs, there was reason to think that maybe Wilson had turned things around. In fact, things were moving along so well, I endorsed Ron Wilson’s contract extension, thinking that for a young team, he was an experienced coach who not only had a reputation for special teams success, but his often prickly relationship with the media was somewhat ideal, especially when the team was winning, for deflecting attention away from some of his inexperienced players who would inevitably face criticisms during the season. And, that one-year extension was not a ringing endorsement. Wilson was already under contract until the close of the 2011-12 season, so adding a single year doesn’t scream “You’re our guy!” I really thought the extension was a best-case scenario; the media was asking about the coach’s job, it’s a distraction, so, extend him and avoid the talk that the coach needs to make the playoffs to save his job. And, if they let him go after the season, well, MLSE has deep pockets, and there are a number of coaches sitting at home collecting NHL paycheques as it were. Coaches don’t count against the cap, so the golden handshake wasn’t going to hurt too much of anything.

It seems that the February 28 game against Florida was a tipping point in the Leaf’s season. The general manager had spoken about how the trade deadline had been a major distraction for his players, explaining in part the poor play over the month. Yet, with the deadline passed, and no one traded, the Leafs allowed a goal 13 seconds in, and were down 2 before the game was 3 minutes old. The home crowd turned decidedly ugly, and by mid-game, a loud, organized chant of “Fire Wilson” filled the ACC. The Leafs lost to Florida, and the following night coughed up a 3-1 lead in Chicago to lose 5-4, capping off a February record of 4-9-1, including having lost the last 6 games.

At the end of January, Toronto had a 25-19-6 record, and was holding onto one of the top-8 positions in the Eastern Conference. In fact the Leafs had occupied a playoff spot for most of the season, including the ‘milestone’ dates such as American Thanksgiving and the All-Star break. True they weren’t solidly in the top-8, but generally a team in playoff spot for that long is able to continue doing so. And, the Leafs may yet make the post-season, though their recent abysmal play and tough remaining schedule make it seem unlikely.

It’s not that Ron Wilson has done nothing right. Wilson has been the coach for the entire careers of Luke Schenn, Carl Gunnarsson and Nik Kulemin, and has also been the coach while Mikhail Grabovski and Clarke MacArthur emerged with career years. Yes, it’s up to the player to perform well, but it’s unfair to say their coach had no effect on them. From a team perspective, there have been some improvements on the special teams. Frankly, it had looked as though the team was performing better through the first half of the season. They loooked like they could be a playoff team. If that were true, then the coach would deserve some credit. But, in just 1 month, the Leafs have fallen far from that position, with a difficult stretch upoming in their schedule. It’s not that they’ve been losing on a bounce here and there… this team has been embarrassed, at home and on the road. And as melodramatic as LeafsNation can be, even the most dispassionate analyst can see it’s very unlikely the Leafs can achieve the playoff goal. Is it all about scapegoating Wilson for the shortcomings of the roster and some bad luck? It doesn’t seem that way.

The Record: The Leafs’ recent slide has dropped them to an 83-point pace. Wilson’s previous seasons saw his teams accumulate 81, 74 and 85 points. His overall Maple Leaf coaching record was 130-135-45, which equated to a 0.492 point percentage. As the 2010-11 season closed, GM Brian Burke shouldered much of the responsibility, saying he had not provided Wilson with a proper amount of talent. That is true to some extent: Burke has completely remade the roster from when he was hired, and the Leafs still are not considered a top-tier team. However, many feel it is the coach’s job to coach – that is, to create systems suited to his roster’s abilities. He must create opportunities for his players to succeed, be that by matching lines during a game, juggling lines, advising his players of adjustments, or instituting a style of play that exploits his team makeup. In 2011-12, it seemed the Leafs were able to play a speed game, with quick transitions utilizing quick-strike offense from players like Kessel and Lupul. But, the team’s defence was often overmatched, caught out of position, missing their assignments, and leaving the goalies without much support. During the most recent losing streak, the Leafs appeared completely unprepared to begin games. The Leafs were down 2-0 in 5 consecutive games, twice being scored on in the opening minute of the game.

The Highs and Lows: Teams have streaks, and teams that are not very good often have long losing streaks. But, it seemed for the Leafs under Wilson, seasons were often lost on long periods where the team could not regroup and limit those streaks. During this season, it was this recent 1-9-1 streak through February that has them falling to 12th as of March 3, and offsetting a 7-3-1 October. In 2010-11, a 4-0 start was wiped out by going 9-19-4 over the next 32 games, and a strong run to close the season could not salvage the playoffs. In 2009-10, it was a horrific 1-7-5 start that dug the hole and a 3-10-2 January that ended any hopes. It just seemed to take too long under Wilson for the team to get back on track once it strung a couple losses together.

The Special Teams: It’s no secret the Maple Leafs special teams have been an issue for the team for years. To pin that all on Wilson would be incorrect. But, there wasn’t much success on special teams during his tenure. In the previous 3 seasons, the Leaf powerplay was ranked 16, 30, and 22, while the penalty kill was 30, 3o and 28. At the time of Wilson’s firing, the 2011-12 PP was significantly better, ranked 9 in the league, while the PK remained mired in last. In fairness, the PK in Toronto had been performing quite well, in fact going all of January 2012 without allowing a goal. The fact that it remains the league worst, under 75%, is testament to how incredibly bad it had been at the end of 2011. Typically, a head coach is not the one running the special teams. Yet, Wilson was given new assistant coaches to start 2011-12, and nothing seemed to have changed. The point is, under Ron Wilson, Toronto’s special teams have not been very good. Granted, the team has struggled 5-on-5 also, but when special teams struggle this way, it makes it very difficult to win games.

The Perception: Wilson and Burke were teammates at Providence in the 1970s. They also work for USA Hockey together. The perception among many was always that there was no way Burke would ever truly hold his buddy Wilson accountable. For LeafsNation, it simply did not seem a beneficial situation. In fact, most felt that Burke was simply content to sheild his coach from criticism. Could there be any other explanation for hanging onto a coach who hadn’t coached his team to the playoffs?

The Reality: As with most situations, Ron Wilson is hardly the sole cause of the failings of the Maple Leafs. And as is also often the case, it is much easier to replace one coach than try to remake a whole roster. It is a young roster, and there are numerous holes. Burke’s blueprint is far from fully fleshed-out. But, results are what they are. Brian Burke was certainly not convinced a change was needed by the chants of the fans, though it didn’t help that the vast majority of them made the voices heard via Twitter, blog, radio call-in, forum post and from the seats of the ACC. It would have been very difficult to keep the coach, given that every move he made was under such scrutiny.

Former Leaf defenceman Randy Carlyle will be charged with turning the Leafs' season around.

The Timing: It’s often something of a dog-and-pony show when a coaching change is made. There’s much talk of a new sheriff in town, a different coaching style, a wake-up call for the players, and that it will translate into more wins. It rarely does. And that is because so often the issues that surround a losing team extend beyond simply the guy behind the bench and into talent levels and systems. Still, in the short term, it can spark a surge. With 18 games remaining in the season, that is precisely what Burke hopes will happen as he installs Randy Carlyle as the new head coach. To a large extent, Wilson held his fate in his own hands. The 1-year extension was something of a severance package deal for Wilson, as everything hinged on the Leafs making the playoffs. Really, Burke could not continue to talk about having faith in his coach if that coach was unable to end the playoff drought. A coach can’t score or make saves, but he should be accountable for the performance his team gives. Somewhere along the line, if the GM is signing players he believes can play, the coach has to coach his team to some kind of improvement. Wilson ould have remained in place, but the fall from the playoff chase made him a lame-duck, even if he did make the playoffs. Further, as Burke made his choice to hire Randy Carlyle, delaying may have resulted in Carlyle having other offers to consider, or not available at all.

Ron Wilson has some very decent coaching numbers, that much is true. He arrived in Toronto as a period of transition began, but was unable to coax continual improvement out of the roster he was given. He wasn’t eaten up by a rabid hockey market, wasn’t bullied by a 24/7 media and fanbase. But, he did become a lightning rod for the fans’ anger. Sure, Burke and a number of players also catch their share of criticism, but almost every fan, and a number of media outlets, had very little good to say about the coach. It was simply time for a new chapter in Toronto’s history.

  • nick cerra

    what we need now is canadian heart to manage our beloved leafs. that answer is DOUG GILMOUR! SORRY BURKIE BUT ITS TIME TO SAY GOODBYE. IT JUST DID NOT WORK!

  • David O’Connor

    Great article Mark. Lots of good points.