Last season, as the Leafs sat well out of the playoff picture for much of the season, many were calling for the coach’s dismissal. It seems even the most vocal of Ron Wilson’s critics have been quieted down lately. It’s difficult to be critical when the coach has his team sporting a 9-3-1 record and a Leaf leads the scoring race early on.
Given the hot start, those who supported Wilson all along throw out the odd ‘I told you so’. It’s too early for Ron to be making space for a Jack Adams award, but for as much blame as a coach takes for losing, so he should be given credit when his team succeeds.
This .730 clip is exactly what coach Wilson needed to build some job security. Despite his long friendship with GM Brian Burke, it wasn’t a huge stretch to think a firing was in the offing had Toronto stumbled out of the gate. The Leafs have not seen the playoffs since the lockout, but Wilson has been coach since 2008, and has only a 101-107-38 record before this season, for a .488 point percentage.
Burke has often defended his coach by admitting Ron has not always had the most talented group to work with. The GM has addressed this by assembling one of the deepest rosters Toronto has had in years. No doubt, from the net forward, the upgrades are apparent compared to the 2008 team.
Further, the franchise replaced 2 assistant coaches in the off season, bringing in special team expert Greg Cronin and former Islander head coach Scott Gordon to work with Wilson. That’s not to pin the previous record on the former assistants, but no doubt new faces bring a fresh approach. While the penalty kill continues to struggle for the Leafs (just over 70%), the powerplay has been a little better, rated in the top half of the NHL for most of the season so far. Special teams will have to improve if the Leafs hope to stay at or near the top of the standings, and that will be a test for Wilson and the coaching staff.
It’s important to note that the Leafs have had a decent schedule so far, catching some teams at opportune times. Still, let’s not discount that the Leafs have accumulated 19 points already, and won their 9th game, something they did not accomplish until December 4 last season.
So, what does Ron Wilson deserve credit for? Has he simply lucked out here, his team racking up points despite him?
One thing the coach has had to do is manage his lineup, and this has not necessarily been an easy task. In different ways, Wilson deserves a lot of credit for finding a way to utilize the talent Burke has provided and translating it into wins.
Begin in the net. No secret, the Leafs were going to lean heavily on James Reimer. But Reimer was injured in his 6th contest, and has not returned to the net as yet. Wilson has used Jonas Gustavsson (who went 4-2) and gave Ben Scrivens his first start (which Scrivens won). Gustavsson has had some shaky moments, but it seems that Wilson has expressed more confidence in Jonas compared to previous instances. People have been critical of Wilson’s handling of the Monster. Whether it was the strange platoon with Giguere in the past, or the way he was shut down once Reimer emerged, it seemed the coach had little trust in Jonas’ abilities. That has changed, and Wilson has used his goalie without giving much peripheral comment, deferring to comment on soft goals, praising when he plays strong. Further, the Scrivens start was something of a surprise, mostly because Wilson did a great job of protecting his young goalie from the media. Note also that both goalies have had some insulation with their first starts; Gustavsson in Boston against a struggling champ, Scrivens in Columbus against team in turmoil.
Consider also Wilson’s handling of the defensive corps. On the one hand, he has relied heavily on Dion Phaneuf, Carl Gunnarsson and John-Michael Liles, and these players have risen to the challenge. Phaneuf especially has stepped up, averaging over 26 mins/game and putting up 11 points and a +8. Wilson has been unabashed in his praise for the captain. Gunnarsson and Liles get over 22 minutes a game each, the coach obviously confident in their play. Mike Komisarek, a player thought to be unable to play in this league, has been getting over 17 minutes a game and repaying that confidence with a +8 performance in 12 games. Rookie Jake Gardiner has earned his minutes, with the coach giving the kid almost 18 minutes a game. At the other end of the spectrum are Cody Franson and Luke Schenn’s apparent regression. Neither player has distinguished himself with his play, and accordingly neither has played very much. Ultimately, it shows that Wilson has adopted a meritoracy. For a team hoping to make the playoffs, it’s the only system that really can work. But what might be more important, Wilson has avoided allowing it to become an issue, answering reporter’s questions without dwelling on Franson’s or Schenn’s struggles.
The situation differs at forward. The coach has had to juggle players due to numbers. Matt Frattin played well, but the rookie failed to score big points, and was sent down to gain more experience. Nazem Kadri also is back with the Marlies. Tough guys Colton Orr and Jay Rosehill have been used sparingly. Again, the coach has managed to avoid being baited into discussing these issues at length. In fairness, winning means fewer folks will ask about lineup changes. But, with the media that follows the Leafs, there’s always someone who will look for a story. The fact is, the Leafs have not required the toughness of Orr and Rosehill as yet, and with so many forwards, it simply makes sense to have Frattin and Kadri continue their development at the AHL level. Regardless, Wilson has essentially handled it in a way that states he has confidence in his lineup as it stands, that he won’t be pressured into icing players because of their tenure or supposed potential.
Moreover, the rest of the forwards have been given the opportunities to play complete games. Phil Kessel is playing like a man possessed, but some of that has to be credited to the coach. Kessel is not just scoring, he’s playing over 19 minutes a game, in a variety of situations. Wilson has also been unafraid to employ his centres in different situations. Tyler Bozak, Matthew Lombardi, David Steckel and Tim Connolly have all centred Kessel and Joffrey Lupul as required by the coach. It’s paid off to varying degrees, but essentially, all lines have contributed to the offense, while things have tightened up defensively. Also paying off has been Wilson’s resistance to juggle the Grabovski-MacArthur-Kulemin line after a slow start. The combo has 11 goals and is +15, and present a legitimate threat to opponents behind Kessel and Lupul. Slowly, the goals for has been rising while the goals against have dropped. That doesn’t happen if your forward lines are not playing both ends of the rink.
The big challenge is yet to come. An unfortunate hallmark of Wilson’s tenure in Toronto has been prolonged slumps that often erase any potential for the playoffs. The season is still relatively young at 13 games. The team has not lost 2 in a row yet. That is likely to change. In the 9 wins, the team has at times been lucky, or fortunate, winning despite playing a less than stellar game. The test will be if coach Wilson can find the ways to turn his players in a winning direction sooner than later and avoid letting the momentum built up slip away. That remains to be seen. But early in this season, the coach has shown that while he may have a better, deeper roster to work with, he’s found a way to coach them to a very good start which may well result in a playoff payoff.
A graphic designer and production artist by trade, Mark is a long-time hockey fan. He was a Maple Leafs contributor to TheHockeyWriters.com for over 2 years, and has written for other websites. You can follow him on Twitter @MarkAscione