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Leafs Have Their Man with Wilson

Monday, 09.06.2008 / 2:48 PM / Mike Ulmer's Blog
By Mike Ulmer  - Mapleleafs.com commentator
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Let us assume that you hire a coach to win, and fire him when he loses.

And yes, everyone wants to win.

But as they assessed Ron Wilson’s record with the Anaheim Ducks, Washington Capitals and San Jose Sharks, I wonder if interim GM Cliff Fletcher, CEO Richard Peddie and Gord Kirke, took a long hard look at the loss column.

Wilson has won 518 games, and lost 446 times. That’s a lot of both.

Ask yourself: will Wilson coax wins, perhaps more than deserved out of the Maple Leafs? Sure.

Will that be enough to goose the Leafs into the playoffs?  Few pundits would give you that one.

Even a cursory look at the Leafs indicates they have a long mountain to climb. Captain Mats Sundin may or may not return next season but he is 37 and these are the final chapters of his career.

The team has failed to qualify for the playoffs three years in a row, but hasn’t finished low enough in the standings to bring on a blue chip prospect.

Fletcher has repeatedly promised a dramatically different team in October and that may well mean the departure of veterans such as Darcy Tucker, Pavel Kubina and Bryan McCabe.

Swedish defenceman Anton Stralman and Russian forward Nikolai Kulemin will be on hand to bolster the talent pool but no one should go out and buy a tux for next year’s NHL awards dinner.

Goalie Vesa Toskala, who Wilson had last year in San Jose, is a keeper. With the prospect of jail no longer looming, it wouldn’t be a shock to see Mark Bell come back and score 20 goals, that is if Fletcher can see past his injury-filled four-goal, 35 game season.

Nik Antropov had a career year and might even succeed Sundin as captain while Matt Stajan chipped in with 16 goals last year and Alex Steen added another 15. Jason Blake slumped to 15 goals last season and struggled to adapt to playing in Toronto. Wilson has coached him for Team USA at various international events.

Unlike last fall, there will be no brave guarantees of a berth in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The public will be asked to deal with a different set of realities: there is no short term-fix.

Experienced players will be cycled for draft choices and prospects until a critical mass of burgeoning young talents push the Leafs back upward.

So what do you need from a coach in that situation?

Well, you need someone with a proven developmental record. Check.

Wilson’s San Jose Sharks club was the youngest team in the NHL and it was well down the line in salary to boot.

You need someone who has been at the top to reassure everyone that the team is moving the right way. Wilson led a so-so Washington team to the Stanley Cup finals in 1998.

You need someone who will try things, lift speeches from inspirational leaders or use a laptop beside the bench to show a struggling player his last shift. Check.

You need someone who will banter with, entertain and even distract the media with stories and quotes to the standard set by recent Leaf coaches Paul Maurice and Pat Quinn. Again, check.

But maybe the thing that best separates Wilson and the other coaches looking for work is that they haven’t been afforded the luxury of losing. Joel Quenneville had 10 winning seasons with St. Louis and Colorado and only one, partial, losing season. Poor sod.

In six full seasons, deposed Tampa coach John Tortorella had four winning seasons.

The ability to build, to cope with losing, may be Wilson’s greatest asset. He did it with a 14-win season in the Anaheim Mighty Ducks maiden season. The Ducks won only 11 in the strike shortened 94-95 season.

It is, of course, a striking comment that the Leafs latest coach is an attractive candidate because he has tasted plenty of losing. But don’t forget those 518 wins.

What Ron Wilson has proven is that he can break through when the bad weather finally breaks. A realistic look at the Leafs near future is all you need. Clearly, he is the right man.
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