Is Ron Wilson to Blame for the Toronto Maple Leafs' Struggles?

Stuart ColesContributor IDecember 16, 2008

On June 10, Ron Wilson was hired as the new Head Coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

The struggling franchise was looking for a coach to help them turn the corner after firing Paul Maurice, and start rebuilding towards that elusive Stanley Cup.

Was Ron Wilson really the right choice for the role?

Toronto currently stands at 11-12-6, slightly under .500, at 28 points from 29 games. They are fourth in the Northeast Division, and 11th overall in the East.

Yes, the Leafs are struggling, they're out of the playoff spots right now, but is that really considered struggling? You have to compare that to the expectations before the season started.

Common consensus was that the Leafs would stink. They were destined to be really, really bad. In fact, many were predicting they would be in the hunt to draft John Tavares, the currently projected No. 1 pick in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft. As it stands today, the Leafs wouldn't even be in the draft lottery.

So why are the Leafs better than expected? Is it a raft of free-agent signings and trades that have been brought in to bolster the squad? Sure, some of the players, like Niklas Hagman have had an impact. But for every Niklas Hagman, there's a Ryan Hollweg who doesn't really contribute to the side.

And without Mats Sundin, the Leafs are offensively a much worse team than last year.

The only logical explanation for the current upturn in fortunes is the coaching. Ron Wilson might not be everyone's favourite, but he has his plan, and is not afraid to ruffle feathers.

Wilson preaches accountability. It's almost his middle name, as it's so closely associated with him. When he came to Toronto, players were going to be made accountable for their actions. Players such as Matt Stajan and Jason Blake know just how far Wilson will go to make his point, both of them having spent time in the press box this season instead of on the ice.

Both have seen an increase in their ice time since their healthy scratches because of improved on-ice performance. The message, in some cases works.

Perhaps the one negative point about Wilson's accountability system is that it doesn't differentiate between players. Each player is a unique human being and the same treatment isn't going to benefit every person. Tomas Kaberle was benched for the first period in the recent game at San Jose, and subsequently went minus-three on the rest of the game. He looked decidedly unhappy with his situation.

The Leafs have been bad defensively this season, and there's no denying that. However, when you take into account long-term injuries to Jeff Finger and Mike Van Ryn, both of whom showed some promising play early on, it's understandable.

Outstanding prospect Luke Schenn and Jonas Frogren have also spent time out of the line up from the Leaf's injury-hit blue line.

Van Ryn and Finger are now both back in the line up, and Schenn is not expected to be out for much longer. Defensively, this team will improve between now and the end of the season. Assuming that they stay healthy, of course, but that can be said about any team in any league of any sport, not just the NHL.

Wilson has been trying to get the Leafs to make an effort this year. Toronto can be seen to roll over and give up early on in a game too many times under the watch of Paul Maurice. Wilson has accepted that losses will happen, and that the occasional blowout will occur.

What is desired though is a work ethic and a desire to win. Teams will at least find the Maple Leafs a tough team to play against.

That couldn't be said last year. The attitude in the Leafs' locker room is changing. Disruptive elements have gone, and there is noticeably more team chemistry on the ice. Fans can't expect the team to turn round and win this year, or possibly even next year.

Toronto will show more of the same for the rest of the season. They will win games they shouldn't, and they will get blown out in some games. They won't make the playoffs, and they might trade away some of their top players (should they waive the no-trade clause) for picks and prospects. That's all part of the rebuilding process.

Sometimes Ron Wilson will make mistakes. He's only human, much like his players. How accountable he will be held for, we can't tell yet. There's been a significant managerial change in the Leaf's front office that will change the dynamic between ownership, management, and coaches.

The changes at the ACC have been positive so far. It might not seem like it right now, but there has to be some patience. It's all about small steps. Effort comes first, then solid defensive play, then victories.

Wilson has seen and done it all before with Anaheim, Washington, and San Jose. There's nothing right now to point that Toronto will be any different.


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