Ron Wilson, an alumnus from Providence College, was playing for Davos in the Swiss National League A in 1985 when pivotal Minnesota North Stars defenseman Craig Hartsburg was injured. Embroiled in a battle for a playoff spot, Minnesota were in tough to find a stabilizing replacement to hold down the North Stars backend whilst Hartsburg recovered. Ron Wilson, a standout collegiate defender who never rose above major league stopgap, became the go-to-guy having already played 13 games for the North Stars the season previous. A span that bullet pointed five seasons in Switzerland.
A grizzled journeyman by age 30; Wilson would provide stellar coverage in Hartsburg’s absence securing an presence on the North Stars blueline in the 1986-’87 season before completing his NHL playing career with Minnesota a year later.
Of itself, Wilson`s resurgence was not a particularly miraculous story of its age but its significance lay with the deal brokering agent who brought Wilson back to the bigs after years in the hockey hinterlands; the onetime captain of the Providence College Friars in Wilson’s senior year – Brian Burke.
Still a green player agent in ’85, Burke would later be named Senior Vice President of Hockey Operations in Vancouver hired by his Maine Mariners AHL coach Pat Quinn. During Burke’s tenure, Wilson would take his first steps as a head coach in the NHL becoming an assistant for the Vancouver Canucks.
It’s a timeline that proves that friendship and networking can take you a long way in hockey if you put yourself in the right place at the right time. Going on to coach the US team at this year’s Winter Olympics having been named by Leafs and Team USA GM Brian Burke in April 2009; just how far friendship will take Ron Wilson in Burke’s momentum building rebuild will depend on how the Leafs exit the gates this fall.
Logic dictates the leash will be ever tighter on Wilson headed into next season. With Olympic handshakes 18 months removed come October, Burke will be expecting an ever more coherent and moulded roster to achieve something greater than the sum of its parts.
Indeed, having overseen a theoretically superior ’09-’10 iteration of the Leafs depreciate from 81 points in his maiden season to 74, Wilson is going to have to ameliorate a club increasingly bearing the fingerprints of one of the league’s most respected administrators.
And no amount of backslapping will stop Burke from pulling the trigger on Wilson if the Leafs once again fail to stick the pace for the duration of the regular season, not with excuses tiring and Burke’s reputation on the line.
With summer likely to bring further upgrades to the Leafs roster, Wilson will have to draw from the oftentimes inspirational play the Leafs managed in ’08-’09 with a ragtag collection of players that was spliced from one tumultuous administrative reign to another.
Where the Leafs of two seasons ago were a chippy underdog on any given night; the Leafs of last year, weighted by unreasonable expectation, rolled over frequently and often bringing a sharp focus on the cost of the Kessel acquisition; a player part recovered from injury on a team already dead in the water when he debuted.
Burke won’t have enjoyed the subsequent scrutiny of his feisty business operations. The Kessel trade was idiosyncratically his and yet the situation on the ice was neither the direct fault of Burke or Kessel.
“Run and Gun” was what Wilson brought to the table upon his arrival, a prelude to Burke’s era, a West Coast style that placed the onus on the attacking game. It was the stimulus for the early overachievement in 2008 and the subsequent pinpoint for collapse at the beginning of last year.
Building from the net out was the Burke blueprint and whilst Gustavsson provided a significant upgrade to the ailing play of Vesa Toskala , it was the blueline that experienced the greatest overhaul last summer. With the signings of Komisarek, Beauchemin and to a lesser extent Exelby, Burke bolstered the defensive corps with two tried and tested NHLers, Beauchemin a minute-muncher on Burke’s Stanley Cup winning Anaheim team, and a serviceable and truculent stand-in.
With the likes of Schenn, Kaberle, White and Finger filling in the gaps, the Leafs defence appeared one of the most solid and multifaceted in the Eastern conference.
Then, after a reasonably successful pre-season, came the implosion. Amid the revolver door of draftees, prospects, free agents and roster players who made up the Leafs defence in September, nobody really knew how the new faces would mesh come the regular season, least of all into Wilson’s heavy pinching system. The reality was not well at all.
Sans Kubina and an injured Van Ryn, the rotation of defence was little changed from the year before but the systems had altered. Where the ’08-’09 Leafs played to their limits with a responsible defensive game, the Leafs opened up with an uncalculated and desperate offensive D that handcuffed new signees and old hands alike. Wilson’s game plan was tailored to fast-footed D-men underrepresented in Leafland, the result was endless odd man rushes headed the other way and the crux: Beauchemin.
A positional defender, unspectacular by trait, Beauchemin failed to adapt his game to Wilson’s stratagem to such an extent that every mistake was magnified tenfold further worsened by the slow-skating sophomore-slump being experienced by his partner Luke Schenn. This left Komisarek holding the can of truculence on defence which frequently resulted in horrible, untimely penalties that only exacerbated the Leafs other major bug bear: Penalty Killing.
What do the ’94-’95 Mighty Ducks of Anaheim and the ’09-’10 Leafs have in common? They are the last two teams to finish bottom in both penalty killing and powerplay percentages, albeit the Leafs have the distinction of being the first team to achieve this onerous watermark in the thirty team era.
While one could point to the minutia of execution, a broader assessment of the Leafs special teams (at least prior to the addition of Dion Phaneuf) could be “mindless.” The same powerplays, played out hundreds of times over to a degree that even a casual observer could turn clairvoyant on where the puck was going while the collapsing PK suffered from a similar issue to that of the defence: Player Combinations.
Wilson never nailed his combinations, opting instead for a season long line juggling experiment. When you look around the cream of the NHL’s top defensive teams and the league’s top penalty killing units you see one thing – consistency; the same players in the top 4 spots on D, the same players manning the PK units. Endless fondling of defensive partners and PKers only served to suggest one thing; either Burke had staffed the Leafs with duds or Wilson was jamming a square peg of a gameplan into a round circle of talent.
One could argue the former, that Beauchemin and Komisarek where little more than complimentary D-men on their former teams alongside Niedermayer in Anaheim and Markov in Montreal; but a far likelier appraisal, considering the pedigree of Kaberle and the promise of Schenn, is that Wilson failed to tailor his strategy to the limitations Burke had on realising his vision of an ’06-‘07 Anaheim team in blue jerseys.
Burke once said that “losing has a corrosive effect on a player,” a typically eloquent response to a culture that has enshrined the Leafs from top to bottom for the best part of a decade. Wilson is a coach that knows what it is to win but the fading sense of accountability he wrought in his first year has left the organization cold. Now he is tasked with bringing a young core of forwards and the likes of Schenn and Gunnarsson onward to the Promised Land with a wienerly nature at odds with the ultimate objective.
So should Wilson remain head coach going forward? For all the shortcomings that bore out on the ice last year for Toronto the successful tandem of Burke and Wilson at the Olympics (a position unquestionably owed to Providence College) with a fundamentally young team points to yes.
At least for now.
Entering with lower-than-usual expectations, the USA rode the traditional combination of grit, size and skill all the way to a gold medal showdown. Sporting a wheelhouse line of Backes, Ryan and Drury; Wilson’s team USA demonstrated how relentless forechecking and bullying grind could propel a team with a modicum of talent all the way. It also illustrated the Leafs roster shortcomings and paradoxically Wilson’s own failures in Toronto.
Subsequently the question remains whether Wilson can channel his Olympic mojo into a full regular season and apply a system that is symbiotic with the tools at his disposal. If he can`t, and quickly, there will be no more turning to the failings of Vesa Toskala.
After all friendship can only take you so far.
Originally written for the Maple Leafs Hot Stove