The 2011-12 NHL season kicks off for the Toronto Maple Leafs on Thursday, and it may very well be Ron Wilson’s last with the team.
The Leafs’ head coach is in the last year of a four-year contract he signed in 2008, when then-Leafs general manager Cliff Fletcher inked the former San Jose Sharks bench boss to a deal that Wilson’s Team USA old buddy, Brian Burke, inherited.
At the time, Wilson was seen as a solid hire for the Leafs, considering he was on the heels of a very successful tenure with the Sharks – at least in the regular season – in addition to guiding the Washington Capitals to the Stanley Cup Final in 1998.
But lately, things haven’t been nearly as rosy for Wilson in Leaf land.
In three seasons behind Toronto’s bench, Wilson has compiled a mediocre 64-73-27 record for a .473 winning percentage, and has yet to lead the Leafs back to the playoffs.
For a fan base that lives and dies for its team, it’s surprising the Maple Leaf faithful have been so patient with Wilson.
Or maybe it’s Burke they are being patient with. After all, Burke did deliver a Stanley Cup to the Anaheim Ducks, after promising to do so, and is credited with helping build the Vancouver Canucks into the contender they are today.
But how long will this patience last?
The Leafs haven’t made the playoffs since before the lockout and fans can’t wait forever.
They are tired of being teased, too.
Last year, the Leafs got off to a sizzling-hot start, winning the first four games of the season before immediately hitting a roadblock, going 1-11 in their next 12 contests.
Luckily, the team did play very well towards the end of last season, and finished the year with the highest point total in Wilson’s short reign.
If Wilson has the team in good shape by American Thanksgiving, some will call for an extension, eliminating is lame-duck status and keeping him happy.
We all saw what happened in baseball with Ozzie Guillen and the Chicago White Sox. Guillen wasn’t happy with his contract and took out his concerns with his organization in a tirade captured by the cameras.
The Leafs, already a laughingstock in the view of many, don’t want or need similar bad press.
Another point to consider is that should Wilson coach the Leafs into the playoffs without a new contract, he would probably be a hot commodity next summer. There will be teams looking for a veteran coach and if Wilson can take the Leafs to the spring dance, he will have proven he can take a young team with average talent and turn them into a playoff club.
But really, does he deserve it?
Three seasons with no playoffs is all that needs to be said. Why should a winning stretch of games at the start of the season give Wilson job security he really hasn’t earned? As history has shown, a hot start to a long year of hockey doesn’t guarantee anything in the NHL.
Wilson should play out the season on the last year of his deal, and Burke shouldn’t discuss an extension with him until the season is over. Sure, it may be taking a risk if Wilson has a strong year, but it’s worth the gamble.
If Wilson takes the team to the playoffs, keep him. Otherwise, it’s time for Burke look elsewhere.
Leaf fans can’t wait forever.