Canadians have often debated the possibility of an American invasion of the Great White North, but nobody ever expected this outcome. Ron Wilson, though born and raised in Ontario, Canada, played hockey for the U.S. National Team – a slight equally as blasphemous as Brett Hull’s defection in 1986. Leaf Nation, however, couldn’t be happier.
Ten games into the 2008-09 NHL season, Wilson has delivered a product both entertaining and successful. Through those ten games, the Toronto Maple Leafs hold a winning record, with some impressive victories over substantially ‘better’ opponents. Both the New Jersey Devils and defending Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings fell to the Blue and White; furthermore, close games resulting in shootout losses to the streaking New York Rangers, and perennial powerhouse Anaheim Ducks only act to further cement what those in Leafland already know: the ‘Twisted Sister’ in Ron Wilson has arrived, and the Leafs have adopted his message: “We’re not gonna take it”.
Not the most talented group of players, the Leafs have repeatedly demonstrated a drive and desire sorely lacking in recent years. No longer are they being beaten to loose pucks. No longer are players rewarded for lackadaisical efforts. Gone are the days when a 2-0 deficit meant the team would pack it in and give up for the night. The style of play exhibited this season is clearly a result of a change in philosophy from the coaching staff on down. Players are held accountable for their performances on a nightly basis, with the characteristics being rewarded the same as those intangibles instilled among youngsters who first lace up the skates: Play hard, play with passion, and give 100 percent on every shift.
Defensively, the Toronto Maple Leafs are significantly improved over last season. Allowing fewer scoring chances per game, fewer goals per game, and blocking more shots, the Leafs are demonstrating a dedication to defence that any team with plans for the Stanley Cup must have. In addition, noticeable on the ice this year is a significant increase in speed. The pace of the Leafs’ game has surely quickened, as one would have expected with the club’s infusion of youth. The likes of Kulemin, Grabovski, and Hagman create excitement every time they step on the ice, a nice change from the plodding Buds of last year. With depth at every position, and a plethora of passports with birthdates later than 1985, this Leafs team seems to be headed in the right direction.
Perhaps the most telling sign that this Leafs organization is undergoing a renaissance is in the handling of young Luke Schenn. Drafted 5th overall in this year’s Entry Draft, the topic of Schenn’s development has been a hot button issue amongst the Toronto media. Before Wilson’s arrival, Schenn would most likely have been seeing minimal ice time, relegated to riding the pine in favour of veterans and those in a higher tax bracket. Under Wilson’s guidance, Schenn has seen top 4 minutes every game (deservedly so), and has taken full advantage of the opportunity provided to him. Solid on the puck, making good defensive decisions, and a willingness to drop the gloves in defence of his teammates have endeared Schenn to Leafs Nation. Instead of an Alyn Macauley or Brad Boyes to “what if” over, a bonafide stud will man the blue line at the Air Canada Centre for years to come.
Whether or not the success of the first ten games can be maintained over an entire 82 game season is yet to be seen. What is clear, though, is that Ron Wilson has carved out a niche for himself in the hockey mad city of Toronto – and stands tall as a man among gods.