Over and over again this season, Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke has denied any thought of relieving Ron Wilson of his head coaching duties. For a while, that was acceptable; the Leafs spent a good deal of the year comfortably in a playoff position despite being a largely inexperienced team. Alas, and as has been the case for many years now, Toronto’s goaltenders began to struggle, the defensive corps in front of them couldn’t remember how to defend, and the secondary scoring went milk-carton missing.
All these struggles came together in February, resulting in a 1-8-1 record in the Leafs past 10 games.
Heading into Wednesday evening’s matchup against the Chicago Blackhawks, the Leafs sit 4 points back of the 8th-place Washington Capitals with 19 games left in the season. The schedule from here on out seems less-than-favorable for the playoff-starved Buds, and a dud of a trade deadline means that there will be no new cavalry to arrive and save the day.
Unless, of course, you consider a coaching change.
Simply put, good teams don’t become bad teams overnight. Were the Leafs ever a good team? Arguably not, but they played like one earlier in the year and Wilson has been unable to coax that solid play out of them ever since, no matter how many times failed UFA signing Tim Connolly was shuffled between the first, second, and third lines. (Some might even say that Connolly’s shortcomings have been a product of misuse, not lack of skill.)
For some, Wilson should have been fired last year. For others, Wilson’s throwing the goaltenders under the hypothetical bus was the last straw. For me, it was last night when Leafs fans voiced their displeasure in unison, chanting “Fire Wilson” for a significant portion of Toronto’s 5-3 loss to rival Florida. (That sounds weird.)
Let me be frank. Democracy has a multitude of flaws. Generally, you can count on a thousand people to pull an issue in a thousand different directions, while one figure of power has the fortitude to make a quick, clean decision, for better or for worse.
This is the direct opposite of that. Burke seems unable to bring himself to make a coaching change, perhaps out of his friendship with Wilson, perhaps out of refusal to admit his plan isn’t working. Either way, the normally scattered voices from below are all bellowing for change. This might be one of the rare exceptions where it would be beneficial for Brian Burke to bend to public discourse. Fighting this is no longer a battle worth fighting, as it’s clear that, even if the Leafs manage to turn the ship around and squeak into the playoffs, Toronto will never embrace Ron Wilson as their bench boss.
It’s no secret that coaches have a shelf life, and Ron Wilson is beginning to smell a little rank.
It’d be in the team’s best interest if Wilson is cut loose sooner than later, and at the very least an interim coach is brought in. Replacing Wilson with one of his assistants seems like a lateral move, but the Leafs do have a blue chip coaching prospect in Toronto Marlies head coach Dallas Eakins. Perhaps allowing Eakins to audition for the job as the next Leafs head coach now wouldn’t be such a bad idea. Perhaps bringing in someone who’s familiar with the Leafs organization and players would make the transition a smoother one for both Eakins and the team. If not, there are experienced and successful NHL coaches currently unemployed, and at least one of them would likely be willing to attempt turning the Leafs’ misfortunes around.
Regardless of who comes in, it’s clear that Ron Wilson must go out.