by Mike Chen on 03/26/09 at 02:55 PM ET
The boss had this Steve Simmons post about Ron Wilson and his first season in Toronto:
Wilson is having a remarkable first season coaching the Leafs. This awful roster he has been handed is playing highly entertaining hockey. The kids are getting better, growing up faster, learning and developing. A Leafs team with seven minor-leaguers in its lineup, and at least 10 players who could have cleared waivers without being claimed this season, has 10 wins in its past 15 games, 21 points during that period.
If Wilson wasn’t so caustic, occasionally abrasive and sarcastic—three of my favourite qualities—this city would warm up to him the way it hasn’t warmed up to a Leafs coach since Pat Burns.
Caustic, abrasive, and sarcastic—hey, we saw plenty of that in San Jose, and you can throw in “Really damn stubborn” as part of the Wilson equation. Like Harvey “Two-Face” Dent, you just didn’t know which Wilson you were getting depending on your mood. He could be witty and thoughtful or he could be biting and sarcastic, sometimes outright venomous.
For the most part, Wilson seemed to have a good relationship with the San Jose media. Some columnists commented about his quirks before (more so after he left) but he always made for a good interesting quote, and just when you thought he was a jerk for the sake of being a jerk, he’d wax philosophical about trying to get men to play a boys game—and you’d think, “Damn, this guy really gets it.” I don’t think Wilson detests the media as Simmons claims; I think he detests the absurdity of the Toronto media. Because, honestly, when you step outside of the Toronto Media Universe bubble, a lot of the stuff that they report on falls into the “create a story out of nothing” area, and I’m pretty sure that Wilson sees that as an insult to his intelligence.
Simmons is right in that Wilson’s taken a Toronto team that really shouldn’t be as good as their record is and got them to play hard. In fact, it’s really similar to what happened his first full season in San Jose when a bunch of castaways and speedy also-rans turned into conference finalists. Or as one of my friends once put it, “Ron Wilson makes crappy teams good and good teams crappy.”
Part of that is his combination of sarcasm and bull-headed stubbornness. He has a system, he believes in it, and if it’s not working, it’s cause the players aren’t buying into it, not because it’s just plain not working or because the opposition figured out how to defend it. I think that’s why Wilson works well with young players or under-talented teams because he can preach the system and those guys become pieces in his master plan. When the young players mature or when talented veterans are brought in, that same system can stifle skill and wind up frustrating everyone involved.
In the end, Ron Wilson’s first year in Toronto is pretty much what I expected—getting more than what was expected, trading jabs with the media, and bringing some surprises out of the system. Or as I told Pension Plan Puppets at the start of the season:
Every coach obviously has a shelf life, and while I may seem pretty harsh on Wilson, I do think he’s a good coach, just not a flawless coach. I think his shelf life is accelerated because of his attitude, though, and unless he changes his prickly personality, you’ll see higher peaks and frustrating lows probably faster than other coaches.
If this follows the usual Ron Wilson pattern, though, you’ll see significant growing pains in year two (higher highs, lower lows, and even crazier media battles) and player frustration in year three. The question is whether or not Wilson’s system will be strong enough to overcome these things—or if Wilson’s learned enough from his mistakes in San Jose to let some flexibility creep into his attitude. Somehow, I think his stubborn attitude is here to stay, for better or worse.
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