Despite His Critics, Ron Wilson Has Toronto Maple Leafs On Right Track

November 21st, 2011 10 Comments

Anytime a head coach of an NHL team enters a season in the final year of his contract there are bound to be a ton of “soon to be fired” rumors surrounding his name. Such is the case with respect to Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Ron Wilson as he entered the 2011-12 season in the final year of the four year deal he signed back in June of 2008.

Since signing with the Maple Leafs, Wilson has led the Buds to three very disappointing seasons, finishing with a 34-35-13 record in 2008-09, followed by a 30-38-14 finish in 2009-10 and a moderately improved 37-34-11 finish in 2010-11.

Overall, Wilson led his troops to a 101-110-38 record over his first three seasons with the club which, given the lack of overall talent on the Maple Leafs’ roster, is not far off what was expected from the fans of the Blue and White.

Behind the scenes, Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke has been hard at work changing the culture of the team from a cottage-like atmosphere to a win at all cost organization that rewards hard work and effort rather than being sidetracked by the names on the back of the jersey’s.

Heading into the 2011-12 season it was felt that—for the first time in almost a decade— the Maple Leafs would compete for a playoff spot. Still, many fans wanted to see Wilson fired prior to the start of the 2011-12 season, pointing to his poor overall record as the Maple Leafs head coach and the teams inability to play well on special teams.

Fast forward to the quarter mark of the 2011-12 season and you’ll find the Maple Leafs are currently sitting in second place in the Northeast Division with a record of 11-8-2, good enough for fifth overall in the Eastern Conference standings, ahead of such teams as the Boston Bruins, New York Rangers, Ottawa Senators, Washington Capitals and Montreal Canadiens— many of which were supposed to finish well ahead of the Blue and White by many of the so-called “experts” expectations.

Burke’s changes to the roster, combined with the coaching changes Wilson made seem to have the Maple Leafs in a position to taste success, which is backed up by some impressive numbers.

So, what do the numbers say thus far?

Through 21 games, the Maple Leafs currently own the sixth ranked offense at 2.90 goals scored per game and the fifth ranked power play which is humming along at a 21.2 percent success rate.

Comparatively, Toronto owned the 23rd ranked offense in 2010-11 at 2.60 goals scored per game, while icing a power play that was sputtering along at a 16 percent success rate, which ranked them 22nd in the league. That’s a heck of an improvement from Toronto’s 2010-11 numbers.

While it is hard to imagine, the Maple Leafs are one of the NHL’s most feared teams, at least offensively.

Much of the credit goes to Phil Kessel, who currently leads the NHL with 16 goals in 21 games, but a lot of credit must also go to Burke for putting together a more balanced lineup that includes forward Joffrey Lupul (ten goals, 25 points) and defensemen Dion Phaneuf (two goals, 15 points) and John-Michael Liles (three goals, 12 points) and Wilson who has seen a number of players improve their games under his tutelage.

Sure, last years trio of Mikhail Grabovski (five goals, ten points through 18 games), Clarke MacArthur (six goals, eight points, through 15 games) and Nikolai Kulemin (two goals, eight points, through 21 games) have all taken a step back from last years pace which saw the trio post career highs with a combined 177 points on the season, but that can hardly be blamed on Wilson or Burke.

Off-season acquisitions Tim Connolly (acquired via free agency) and Matthew Lombardi (acquired via trade) look like tremendous signings (that is when they are healthy) while rookies Jake Gardiner (acquired via trade) and Matt Frattin look to be solid NHL players in the making.

Defenseman Cody Franson (acquired via trade) is yet to really show us what he can do, but with fellow defenseman Mike Komisarek on the shelf for the next eight to ten weeks, Franson looks to have been an astute pickup by Burke.

While Burke continues to get much of the accolades for the Maple Leafs early success, Wilson gets little respect for the job he is doing as there are still those within the Leafs Nation that feel Wilson has to be fired— especially in light of the Buds defensive struggles.

To be fair, Wilson’s critics have a point. As great as the Maple Leafs have been offensively, they have been inept on the defensive side of the puck. Many fans blame Wilson for the Maple Leafs defensive struggles, pointing the finger at Wilson’s long track record of icing poor defensive teams in Toronto and his inability to solve the Maple Leafs long standing penalty kill issues, which are well documented.

Through 21 games the Maple Leafs own the 27th ranked defense, allowing 3.27 goals per game. That’s an increase of 0.30 goals per game from the 2010-11 season in which the Buds allowed 2.99 goals per game.

Part of the teams’ struggles can be blamed on goaltending. An early season head injury to starter James Reimer derailed a lot of the Maple Leafs early success, forcing Wilson to employ Jonas Gustavsson and rookie Ben Scrivens as his go-to netminders.

Both Gustavsson and Scrivens have enjoyed moderate success, but the team is longing for Reimer to come back as he seems to give the troops a shot in the arm in the confidence department when he mans the pipes.

Ask yourself this—how many NHL teams would fair much better defensively with the likes of Gustavsson and Scrivens between the pipes?

The penalty kill has also been a struggle for the Blue and White. The Maple Leafs currently rank 27th overall on the PK with a success rate of 76.2 percent. The Maple Leafs finished the 2010-11 season with the 28th ranked PK with a 77.4 percent success rate.

When you consider the Buds top-six defensemen (Dion Phaneuf, Carl Gunnarsson, John-Michael Liles, Jake Gardiner, Luke Schenn and one of Cody Franson or Mike Komisarek) one expects better results.

Another factor in the Maple Leafs defensive struggles is the loss of defensive specialist and physical presence Colby Armstrong. Armstrong was a staple on the Maple Leafs PK early on in the season when the team was getting much better results. Armstrong is also an effective checker, which limits the opposing teams’ first line offensively.

Take a step back and consider for the moment that the Maple Leafs have rarely been able to ice a full lineup. Injuries to Armstrong, Reimer, Connolly, Clarke MacArthur, Mikhail Grabovski, Mike Komisarek and Matthew Lombardi have hampered the team throughout the season, forcing Wilson to dress four rookies on a nightly basis, including Matt Frattin, Jake Gardiner, Ben Scrivens and, most recently, Joe Colborne.

The point is, the Leafs poor defense is the fault of the players, management and coaching staff and the result of having to deal with a tremendous amount of injuries, not just Wilson.

All things considered, the defensive results, or lack thereof, are not completely out of line with what Wilson has to work with. That said, clearly, a better balance is needed, something Wilson, Burke and the players are all painfully aware of.

As much as we’d all like to put a ton of stock in all the early numbers one thing is clear— when you consider the Maple Leafs overall point total and the injuries the team has had to endure along the way, this team, led by Wilson, looks to be in decent shape.

It is widely felt that in order for Wilson to earn another contract as Maple Leafs head coach he will have to get his team into the playoffs. While it is still early in the season, Wilson has demonstrated the ability to get his players to buy into his system, which has the Blue and White in the playoffs, at least for now.

Wilson also has his troops paying the price for victories as the Maple Leafs currently lead the NHL in blocked shots. Blocking shots may say more about making a sacrifice for your teammates rather than for the coach, but at least this team appears to be dialed-in on more night’s than not, which is refreshing.

Defensive struggles aside; Wilson has not received enough praise for his work with the Maple Leafs this season. It’s about time somebody said it—Wilson is doing a good job. Consider it done!

Until next time,

Peace!

10 Comments

  1. wilson still has to go not the write coach for his type of players

  2. if it wasnt for kessel where would the maple leafs be . just ASK YOURSELF .

  3. Mark Ritter says:

    I hear ya Gerry. But where would the Leafs be if Reimer was healthy? Probably first overall! The numbers don’t lie my friend- wilson has been decent this season, ceratinly not as horrible as some fans make him out to be. I know ya hate the guy and in the long run he may not be the right guy for the job, but he has done a decent (not excellent) job with what he’s been given roster-wise and for that reason I think he stays around this season. Cheers!

  4. Hoogy says:

    We can all say if this or if that. The fact is that under the guidance of Ron Wilson right now the Leafs are sitting in 2nd place in their conference. What I am puzzled by is that with the defense they have and the shots they have blocked, how come they still allow so many shots per game?

  5. nhl fan says:

    Offence from the defence is the biggest reason for the improvement.I think they lead the league. It’s not just Kessel.

  6. Hudson says:

    I am tired of all this moaning about Wilson. It’s such a lame and tired complaint. He is doing a fine job. He finally has more to work with, and the results among hard injuries speak for themselves. I personally LOVE Wilson for how he man handles the wanks in the media. Love it. Love him. Love the Leafs. Nice article, Mark. 7-1 over Tampa since! 😉

  7. MarkRitter says:

    Yes, the “moaning” has gotten a bot out of control. If the Leafs were 6-12-4 I could understand, but the numbers—especially offensively—speak to Wilson’s abilities. Thanks for the comment!

  8. hey guys the seasons just started wait a while and you will see wilsons a jerk period

  9. Hudson says:

    Hey Gerry, he’s been the coach for over three years already. Duh. You sound like lots of the other whiners around T.O. I love a tough coach.

  10. maybe so time will tell wont it take care GO LEAFS GO

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