To Bench Or Not to Bench. Ron Wilson’s big decision

Nelson SantosCorrespondent IDecember 5, 2008

We’ve all been there. Yelling at our television for the coach to bench a certain player. Or when the commentator announces that so-and-so has been scratched from the line up. We voice our concurrence with the coach’s decision.


Much kudos is passed along to Ron Wilson for his willingness to sit any member of his roster to “send a message”. I will admit I’m not a huge supporter of Coach Wilson but do admire his willingness to use a very old tactic that is not nearly used as often as it once was.


However I believe Ron Wilson is guilty of over-using this tactic. I’m not exactly sure why. My guess is ego. There is no doubt Wilson believes in his abilities and his decisions. You only need watch one post-game press conference to learn this.


Here’s the issue with how Wilson utilizes the threat of benching for poor performance. Firstly the more often you do it the less effective it becomes over time. Secondly, he appears to use it to protect the media spotlight being aimed at his performance.


It seems each game day begins with pre-game questions as to why a certain Leaf will be watching from the press-box. Wilson who never shies away from telling it like it is, at least the way he thinks it is, essentially throws that player under the bus, almost to the point of blaming that player for the team’s previous performance. Worse yet, once the player is injected back into the line up and performs decently, Wilson only supplies at most a back-handed compliment to his play.


I know these are pros and we don’t need to pat them on the back for everything they do. But it’s human nature to distance yourself from someone that doesn’t seem to appreciate what you have to offer.


Ron Wilson is the furthest thing from a player’s coach. Ironically enough in this day and age of multi-millionaire players the most successful coaches appear to be the ones considered player's coaches.


Wilson’s return to San Jose is a perfect example of how Wilson chooses his battles incorrectly. Jeremy Roenick a long time veteran  who last year was happy just to have a job and ended up playing pretty well under Wilson. Being rewarded for being a good foot soldier. JR had nothing but great things to say about his former coach. Joe Thornton on the other hand, one of the game's elite players in the prime of his career was indifferent to Wilson’s return at best. "Jumbo" Joe took the high road when asked that question, that's for sure.


The main objective of an NHL coach is to ready his team and players for every game and prepare them as best he can to ensure victories. Again this is another area that when studied closer you realize Wilson is hindering by his decision to constantly sit or scratch players.


Allow me to provide an example. Earlier in the season Jason Blake was demoted, then scratched and then came back worked really hard and supplied the Leafs with some offense for a couple of games. He then fell back into an offensive player’s comfort zone who was producing offense which to his understanding is his mandate. (We all know Blake has been a bust, but the reality is he is paid to a hefty wage to score goals and points). So once again to “send a message” Wilson demoted Blake to the fourth line.


The Leafs did not proceed to go on a winning streak. They surely were not lighting the lamp. So here is a team not winning, not scoring and watching as a highly paid scoring winger is playing fourth line minutes.


On the flip-side Wilson who's as quick as any coach to reward hard-working players promoted Dominic Moore to second-line centre duties and for the most part Moore has played well. However the reality is Moore is a third-line centre at best. But again Wilson was sending a message to his players that if you worked really hard you would be rewarded. Again this message did not produce wins.


While this decorated and well-respected coach was benching, demoting and promoting players within the line-up the one constant remained losses. All this at a price of losing the loyalty of a player that is paid to score goals for a living. Sure Moore is symbol of hope for all the less talented players. But all you really get when you promote checkers to top six forward spots is a hard-working but offensively challenge team. Not a recipe for wins, and isn’t that what coaching is about?


When Ron Wilson’s tenure is over in Toronto there will be many relieved Maple Leafs players and nothing will have changed. Much like it didn’t in Anaheim, Washington or San Jose.