While there were no great expectations for the Toronto Maple Leafs this season, many thought they would do much better than 29th place. Sporting News picked the Leafs a conservative nine spots higher (20th) while writers at Sports Illustrated said the Leafs “would surprise” this year.
Leafs general manager Brian Burke himself said Leaf chances for the 2010 playoffs were “realistic,” adding that “to not make the playoffs represents failure.”
In the end, the Leafs were essentially eliminated from playoff contention a mere dozen games into the season—12 terrible, stinking awful games—and finished second to last in the league.
As easy as it might be to blame the goalies, injuries, and contracts that needed to be moved, there is no avoiding the fact that Ron Wilson remains the real problem for the Leafs.
Hold up your fingers and count the reasons down.
Reason No. 5: Wilson Never Owns Up
A coach needs to shoulder some blame for losses; this demonstrates self-awareness, reflection, and responsibility.
Wilson points his finger instead, post-game conference after post-game conference. After a Leafs 2-1 loss to Ottawa on Oct. 6, Wilson stated, “That was almost an embarrassing effort from seven or eight guys who we're really counting on heavily.”
He failed to mention his coaching error of leaving the same defensive pairing on the ice (Beauchemin and Schenn) for both goals, only 37 seconds apart.
After a 7-2 wipeout to the Rangers on Oct. 12, Wilson said, “We have a number of guys who didn't want to take a hit to make a play to get the puck out of our end.”
A few days later when the Leafs lost 2-1 to Tampa Bay, Wilson insisted, "We have to persevere, we can't change what we're doing because we're right there knocking on the door.”
What door, nobody knew, unless he meant the Leafs’ power play which was 0-6, including a two-man advantage for almost a minute.
“Some guys didn't play and didn't respond physically when we needed it" (April 7, Rangers 5-1). It’s all so vague and confused. He just doesn’t own up.
Reason No. 4: Wilson Doesn’t Know How to Stop Losing Streaks
All teams lose, but it’s the losing streaks that kill a team.
It’s what did the Leafs in at the start of the season—one win in their first 13 games—and then going into the Olympic Break—two wins in 11.
After the Leafs opened the season with their fifth straight loss on Oct. 13 (Avalanche 4-1), Wilson offered this solution: “We're not going to practice. It might seem logical to practice and work on everything, but...we’ll try to have a little bit of fun on Thursday and go from there."
They played dodge ball and then went on to lose six of their next seven. As tough as it might be to get a team out of a spin, that’s the coach’s job.
The coach is supposed to work out something new. He’s supposed to talk to the players. He supposed to take some kind of action. He isn’t supposed to give up.
Reason No. 3: Wilson Lacks Class
This could also be known as the Harold Ballard factor. As amusing as he was at times, Ballard was a terrible owner because he didn’t put the team first.
Similarly, Wilson’s public attack on Phil Kessel (Jan. 7) was damaging to team dynamics to say the least: “You have one #$*% goal in your last 10 games.”
When asked why he did it in front of the press, Wilson retorted, “Actually at the end of the day you guys shouldn’t even watch us practice.” (How Ballard is that?)
When the Leafs went to Chicago on Nov. 13, Wilson made fun of Patrick Kane’s legal problem in front of the press: “I’ve got some spare change.”
Most embarrassing of all, when the Americans lost to Canada in Vancouver, USA Coach Wilson spewed this: “Sometimes the best team in the tournament doesn’t win the gold medal.”
He went on to accuse the Canadian coaching staff of “throw(ing) Brodeur under the bus and back(ing) over him…(and) almost tarnish(ing) his career in one night.” The truth is that Babcock took responsibility and Canada won the Gold.
Reason No. 2: Wilson Lacks Respect For and With the Players
This problem was made clear on the first day of the season when the Leafs hosted Montreal.
Mike Komisarek, the Leafs’ prized free-agent signing of the summer, was anxious to prove himself to his former team and proceeded to lose control, while Wilson looked on. He accumulated 15 penalty minutes, including a five-minute major in the third period followed by a high-sticking minor with six minutes left.
That’s when the Canadiens tied the game (and went on to win 5-4). What might have happened if Wilson had sat Komisarek a few minutes? How might have the Leaf season turned? We’ll never know.
More systemically damaging was Wilson’s handling of Luke Schenn’s ice time in the first half of the season, playing him into the ground (over 15 minutes a game), watching him make mistakes, and then benching him for three games, akin to how a nasty older brother might humiliate his younger sibling into getting it right.
But most significant of all was Wilson’s failure to name a team captain.
This has happened only twice before in team history, both times—you guessed it—in the Ballard years (1979-80, 1986-89). The reason to do this is clear. It’s one less person for Wilson to answer to.
Reason No. 1: Wilson Has No Coherent Coaching System
The linchpin to coaching success is a system, and odd-man situations are a clear example of what strategies are being employed.
The Leafs finished dead last on penalty killing and the power play—30th out of 30 teams in both categories.
As much as Wilson’s supporters would like to blame this on a lack of talent, they need to be reminded that the St. Louis Blues, a team which failed to make the playoffs, were No. 1 in the penalty killing, while the Lightning and Wild, also failing to qualify for the postseason, were both in the Top 10 on the power play.
A further indictment of Wilson’s lack of strategies was the Leafs’ failure to get the game’s first goal. The Leafs surrendered the first goal in 17 of the first 20 games of the season.
“I don’t know what to say, you know? I don’t know what to say to that...what can you say? It’s 2-0, 3-0. It doesn’t matter,” Wilson said on Nov. 6.
Even when the team did figure out how to score first, they couldn’t hold the lead.
Ian White expressed his frustration after a 6-5 loss to Carolina on Nov. 19: “You shouldn't lose a hockey game where you have a 3-0 lead.” Sadly, this happened two months later against the Canucks on Jan. 30 (Canucks 5-3).
And then there was the debacle against New Jersey on Feb. 5.
Down 3-1 with just over three minutes left, the Devils woke up and scored two quick goals to tie the game at 16:56 and 19:16 of the third.
What did Wilson do? Nothing. He didn’t call a timeout. He just watched as the Devils scored 25 seconds later (19:41) and won the game 4-3. Leaf collapses had become the norm.
In the end, it really isn’t a question of goals and statistics. It’s a question of what to do when things go wrong. It’s how to say the right thing at the right time. It’s how to coach.
“Which cliché do you want? We never say die, blah, blah, blah?” Wilson said on Oct. 31.
Ron Wilson is good at getting angry, but he isn’t good at coaching a winning team. And that’s all this is about: winning. The call needs to be made, and it needs to be made now. Wilson has dodged the ball long enough.