Wilson's Contract Extension Now Unlikely
The sizzling start of the Maple Leafs is now but a memory.
And Ron Wilson's opportunity to land a contract extension at some point during this season is almost certainly gone as well.
GM Brian Burke wanted to give Wilson an extension last spring, believing the Leaf head coach had earned it with a strong second half to the 2010-11 season. But then Burke re-considered, and ultimately decided to let Wilson go into this season with his contract set to expire next June. The thinking was if the team played well in the opening third of the season, the way would then be clear to give Wilson a new deal.
Early on, that scenario looked favorable to Wilson. But five losses in six games, including last night's 4-1 loss in Nashville, have sucked all the air out of the Leaf balloon. The same problems - inconsistent goaltending, suspect special teams, an absence of a strong team defensive concept - have again crept into the club's game.
It's possible that Wilson will turn this around. Moreover, it's not his doing that No. 1 goalie James Reimer went down with an injury, and certainly not his doing that management opted not to provide the club with an experienced backup to Reimer.
But the errors that doomed the club to defeat last night in Tennessee - is there ever a reason Luke Schenn should be pinching in a one-goal game? - were ones that have tormented this club over the years Wilson has been coaching, not just this season. This is a young club, yes, but the way the club plays night after night, a high-risk game with chances taken at the least opportune times, seems as much a question of coaching philosophy and execution as the age and experience of the players involved.
An Ottawa club that started terribly and looked over-matched by the rest of the league suddenly has the same number of wins as Wilson's Leafs. Briefly first overall not that long ago, the Leafs are for the first time now closer to ninth than first in the Eastern Conference.
None of this is reason to can Wilson, although if the current slump isn't resolved there will be calls for just that. But extending Wilson, unless the teams rips off a 10-game winning streak before Christmas, now seems impossible until after the conclusion of this season. Burke needs to evaluate his coach at the end of this season, whatever this season brings, not now or next month.
With the club still up for sale along with the rest of MLSE - Wayne Gretzky's potential involvement with one or more groups interested in bidding for the sports conglomerate certainly sparked an uproar yesterday - there should be internal reluctance to commit to anything on the management and coaching side without a very good reason to do so. Layer on to that an uncertain NHL labour situation, and given that teams prefer not to pay people they don't have to pay during a work stoppage, there's no reason to make financial commitments beyond this season until they are necessary.
Wilson has some injuries to deal with, and probably more coming out of the Nashville game. But the fine work of Dan Byslma and the Pittsburgh Penguins during the frequent absence of stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeny Malkin has taken the injury excuse out of the mix for more teams than just the Leafs.
If Wilson is ever going to convince a large element of the Leaf Nation that he is the coach this team needs to have, it needs to happen soon.
He'll just have to do it, one suspects, without any new contractual committment from the team for the forseeable future.
Now on to this week's mail bag:
Q: I went to the Vancouver/Predators playoff game 6 last spring. Believe it or not I got a phone call from one of their sales reps asking me how I enjoyed the game? We would love to have you back again. I told them I had a blast (what a fun city) and would love to come back. He kept in touch with me and emailed me their schedule when it came out. I noticed that the Leafs were there on Nov. 17, so I convinced 5 other friends of mine to go to Nashville for a long weekend and take in the Leafs/Predators game.
I was able to buy tickets directly from the team before they went on sale to the public, pick out what seats I wanted and saved money by dealing with the team directly. They offered assistance with any hotel deals that they had available to the team as well. I have never heard of this happening, of course living in Toronto this would never happen here. My ticket costs $90 for a centre ice first level ticket. WOW! Now I understand why Brett Wilson (Dragons Den) wanted to have a 5 per cent ownership of this team.
Fans were great in Nashville with a very good understanding of the game. Things will only get better in the future for that franchise! I know that the Maple Leafs don't have to go to these extremes to sell tickets, but what a great feeling it was to really feel your presence at the game was truly appreciated. Well off to Nashville in the morning. We will still be cheering for the Leafs.
Bob Witmeyer, Oakville
A: The turnaround for the Preds since the days when Boots del Biaggio was being courted as an investor has been amazing. A lot of the credit goes to the stability established through GM David Poile and coach Barry Trotz, and on the business side, the new owners that have joined the club over the past 18 months and the new executives brought in to run the business. The Preds still have issues in such a small market, but this is a very well-run hockey club with, as you experienced Bob, a good sense of how to sell tickets in "Smash-ville" and beyond. Not surprised at all you had such a positive experience.
Q: Once again you hit the nail squarely on the head! I was on the Fan590 over a year ago complaining about the arrogance level of both Wilson and Burke. I find their condescending, self-serving communication skills disgraceful. I would have also thought that same level of arrogance level be reserved for people that have won something, anything.
Gary O'Neill, Toronto
A: Yeah, I basically agree. I think the way in which Wilson, in particular, carries himself publicly is somewhat of a self-preservation technique required by any coach with such a mediocre record in one city. He came to Toronto with a big rep and hasn't been able to make that convert into a better Leaf team. If and when the time comes that Wilson's job really is on the line, I'm not sure he'll get much support from any media people or outlets. You reap what you sow.
Q: Damien, do you think Burke has so many players unsigned in two years because he wants to sign Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry in two years when they become UFAs. I believe they will sign in Toronto because they love Burke and Perry wants to come home. Thank you
JJ Bancroft, Smiths Falls
A: No. The past few years have made it clear planning for young players to become free agents is a poor strategy because those players usually lock up long-term with their current team. Maybe it'll be different with Getzlaf and Perry, but it's worth nothing that when the Sedin twins were free agents, they didn't sign with the Leafs just because the manager who brought them to the NHL - Burke - was in Toronto.
Q: Damien: Just please read this: The Leafs are gutless. They have very little "Jam". That is why they won’t win consistently. You have danced around it in your articles but haven't said it. They have very little character. Too many "average" players like Steckel and Liles and Brown and Kulemin and Grabovski ....Gardiner, Komeserik, Gunnerson, these guys make a lot of dough and don't bring it even every other night. It reminds me of what Dave Keon said to a rookie that had just made the Leafs, "you made the team, but are you going to make the team better?”
Quinn McCabe, Ottawa
A: I think you're preaching to the choir, Quinn, and saying things that I and others have been saying for some time. So sorry, I can't credit you with seeing something the rest of us can't see. I would think even Burke must be dismayed with the lack of grit there is on his club. This is not the truculence and belligerence he promised.
Q: Hey Damien.
The Leafs are one big defensive SCREWUP but you knew that.
Pete Johnson, Calgary
A: Yes, I did. But I believed your use of CAPITAL LETTERS was fair and reasonable.
Q: Damien, after thinking about it at present, the NHL has one 30-second timeout per team to slow the game down. What about using the same time limit as a gauge when teams try the nonsense that occurred in the Philly-Tampa game the other night. If some team uses the "trap" to slow the game down, whistle the play dead and call 2-minute minor penalties to BOTH teams which would result in 4-on-4 hockey for 2 minutes or less -- much more exciting hockey and less ice time for "enforcers."
Michael Roncetti, Toronto
A: Interesting idea. But I would imagine we'll see no such measure taken until what happened in the Philly-Tampa came starts to become a regular occurance. Until then, this was a one-time, extreme situation.
Q: Sorry Mr. Cox this is not a question but just a comment. I've been reading your columns for well over a decade now. Agree many times with your points and disagree as well. But regarding the whole Penn State scandal why should student athletes be punished for huge, gross errors made by the authoritative figures of the school. This was a scandal of the criminal kind not one of athletics. Maybe all the profits that are made by the school from the football program be given to a charitable cause or something but to punish student athletes who the vast majority have a small window of opportunity to live out their dreams be shattered by a monster almost a decade ago. Not fair.
Parmveer Singh, Quebec City
A: Nope, not fair. But these kinds of scandals always affect the innocent in team sports. When Tulane University shut down it's basketball program because of a points-shaving scandal, that wasn't fair to the coaches or players who weren't involved. At Penn State, my belief is that this was institutional failure at its most egregious, and the only way to truly address that chronic problem would be to take a pause with the football program. Would innocent athletes be affected? Sure. Life ain't fair.