To Fire or Not to Fire: The Problem of Employing a Close Friend

For certain reasons the word around Toronto media is that Ron Wilson’s job is secured for the near future. Why? Well a few common reasons are cited:

1: This is a team in rebuild mode. You don’t want to fire your coach for doing poorly when he has nothing to work with.

2: Toronto has had a very poor core of players to work with. You can’t blame the coach if no one is producing.

3: Wilson’s system works. The quick, offensive minded attack and point-shot-screen powerplay gets the job done, it just needs to be executed properly.

4: And finally, Wilson is a close friend of Brian Burke. If anyone knows the team and the coach, it’s the GM; he makes the calls and should know when Wilson’s time is up.

Well, if these four points are in fact true, then Wilson should stay on for the time being. There are a few problems, however.
The first point is difficult to argue against. The simple fact is that the team is still rebuilding since blowing up the JFJ team. One of the only problems is that the the team’s total number of points at the end of the regular season has been going in a downward trend since Burke took over and Wilson stepped in as coach (83,81,74 in the last 3 full seasons). Yes, the Leafs have had great streaks where they appear to be a team that could content for a spot in the post season, but they have also been mired in abysmal losing streaks that cost the leafs standing in the conference.
: The leafs are rebuilding, but seem to be getting worse.

Secondly, the argument is that the leafs have a weak roster and Wilson is working with what he has. The last two years in particular have seen an influx of talented players (e.g. Kessel, Phaneuf, Giguere, Versteeg, Armstrong, MacArthur) and the youth has began to develop (e.g. Schenn, Kulemin, Grabo [although mostly recently], Bozak, Gustavsson). How, then, is Wilson losing more games than 4 years ago? If no one produces, bring in producers, if they can’t turn the light on in the other end and keep the puck out of the net in their own, take a long hard look at the coaching staff.
: The teams seems to have gotten better – particularly defence and goaltending – but the points just aren’t raking up.

Now on to Wilson’s system. The per-season and first 5 or so games saw a quick, energetic team press the attack with confidence in their D and G. Fast, short passes with quick movement in the neutral zone led to chances, goal, and wins; in the meantime, a reliable Giguere and smart back end kept bad goals out and fed the disk up the ice. And then… well that’s just it, it’s hard to say what even happened. Impossible stretch passes, countless turnovers in all ends of the ice, a few weak goals (although otherwise the net has been the best, IMO), and an almost total inability to score. The leafs seem like a completely different team since mid October.
Conclusion: This year the roster is the same, but the results are dramatically different week to week.

Finally, we come to possibly the most critical component: the friendship factor. I think there is little doubt that Burke knows hockey, but is it possible his judgement is being clouded by his affection for Ron? As we’ve seen above, the leafs are getting worse season over season since the duo took over, the team seems to have gotten better but the points haven’t, and – on a more micro scale – the team is inconsistent and seem unable to win many games.
So what’s the conclusion here? Is Mr Wilson doing as good a job as he can with a young, offensively challenged team, or is he unable to sell his players on his style and unable to get them to play consistently? Even if they don’t win em all, the Leafs should look like the same team from one night to another.

So the question becomes, is Ron Wilson’s job safe because of Burke, or in spite of Burke? Would another GM have moved on by now, or at least in the near future (providing things stay the same)? Or is he good enough to be kept on, despite another losing record?


Post Script: For the Love of Hockey, if all you want to do is leave an anti Leaf comments, or personal hatred for some player, or myself, or anyone else that comments: just don’t! This form is for people who care about what is being discussed. If this doesn’t interest you just read something else.