December 26, 2011
Toronto Maple Leafs Coach Ron Wilson not only became the first NHL coach to tweet-announce his own contract extension, but the first to do so with a prolonged tease built around Christmas morning. It was unorthodox, irreverent and a pain in the ass for the media — the hockey equivalent of Bill Lumbergh getting perverse joy in telling Peter Gibbons he had to come in on Saturday to finish those TPS reports, mkay?
So, in summary: It was very Ron Wilson.
One could imagine coach and general manager clinking mugs of Irish coffee over the announcement, spilling some on his newly signed contract before they both used it as a large coaster.
In a League where change is inevitable and frequent among coaches, the Burke/Wilson marriage is the most understandable (in terms of relationship) yet inexplicable (in terms of results). .
They're kindred spirits, in that "you complete me" sort of way. But Wilson isn't necessarily a parrot for Burke's philosophy, the way anyone who finds himself behind the bench of the New Jersey Devils must be, for example. From Toronto Sports Blog in July 2010:
Wilson loves the up-tempo, high pressure fore-check system, one that values solid speedy skaters and an endless motor. Burke also values the pressure style, but with a difference, he wants his skaters to be able to paste the defensemen into the end boards. Wilson wants three lines of skill, speed and scoring ability, I am sure he would love to have more size than the Leafs current roster provides and that is how the Leafs finally started to play better hockey, rolling three lines and basically letting the "sandpaper" out of the cage when needed.
Burke's altered that philosophy a bit in the last year, de-emphasizing size in favor of physical rink rats. It's the type of player that better fits Wilson's gameplan, which might be a reason why the Leafs are 10 points better in the standings than they were through 35 games last season.
But it's not the only reason, of course: There's Phil Kessel's Hart Trophy-consideration performance; competent to above-average goaltending when James Reimer is healthy; and as Rob Longley noted, the avoidance of a prolonged losing streak thus far, keeping the Leafs in the playoff picture (albeit three points up on Winnipeg, the No. 9 seed).
What if the Leafs fall short of the playoff pile again this season? Well, Wilson's already the only coach in the history of the franchise that has come back for a fourth season after missing the playoffs in three straight years. That's going back to 1920. So what's another season?
I like Ron Wilson as a coach, I really do. I think that he still has unfinished business here and that the team can succeed with him. But him getting this shiny new Christmas present? It doesn't mean much. Expectations are still there, and the pressure is still on. It gives a bunch of uninformed people a false sense of security, and Ron Wilson a financial sense of security. It's the second most intriguing gift he got this year, if his twitter is any indication. No word yet on whether he's going to let Randy Cunneyworth borrow his new Red Ryder BB Gun to shoot the french-speaking half of the Montreal media with at the next press conference.
But again: It's not about Ron Wilson, it's about Brian Burke.
Mike Zeisberger of QMI feels that Burke's put himself on the line by extending Wilson:
Whether you think Burke's decision reeks of a) swagger; b) arrogance; c) confidence; or, d) all of the above, the choice to ink the coach at this time puts the accountability directly on him.
Keep in mind that Wilson's contract does not count against the salary cap. If management and/or the board decides it is time to pull the plug, the deep pockets at Bell and Rogers easily have the financial resources to eat whatever monetary commitments remain on Wilson's deal.
… That Burke opted to lock up Wilson long term should come as no surprise. He's hinted at it for months but was believed to be stifled in his efforts over the summer because of the Leafs' uncertain ownership at the time, a situation that has since been rectified. It's the logic and the timing that doesn't make sense.
Logically, Ron Wilson shouldn't return for a fifth year of the Toronto Maple Leafs miss the playoffs again. This contract extension doesn't mean he will — hell, it's not like Burke's paying him out of pocket — but it at least increases the chances it could happen. Even with this team seemingly on the upswing, some accountability has to be taken for the inability of an Original Six franchise to qualify for the postseason on an annual basis.
Burke's move here signals he believes this is a team that will qualify for the playoffs and void any calls for Wilson's noggin. If they don't, is could be a signal he's back again, performance be damned; or, based on the last 24 hours, we're betting on Memorial Day or July 4 for the "so long and thanks for all the fish" tweet from Ronnie.