With training camp set to begin tomorrow to – finally – bring some positive news back to hockey’s forefront, it’s high time to get going on a four-part series of blogs previewing the Toronto Maple Leafs’ 2011-12 season. Today, we kick off with a coaching preview, to be followed in the coming weeks with a look at the goaltending situation, blue line, top six and bottom six forwards.
The stakes have been set for both this Leafs’ season and for Ron Wilson’s coaching future in Toronto: its playoffs or bust.
There simply isn’t anywhere else for this club to go that wouldn’t be – at best – a lateral move sure to infuriate an already-frustrated fan base going on its seventh year without postseason hockey. Oh yeah, and its 45th year without a Stanley Cup.
To his credit, Wilson has helped steer the Leafs to their current status as being a team on the rise (although General Manager Brian Burke deserves the lion’s share of whatever credit being a ‘team on the rise’ counts for). Still, the franchise nonetheless finished eight points out of the No. 8 spot in the East, hardly an adequate achievement for a coach entering his fourth season behind the Buds’ bench. The harsh reality of the situation remains that Wilson’s stint has produced an underwhelming 101-107-38 career record and the team’s No. 4 placement in the Northeast division last season represents an improvement over their No. 5 finish in his previous two years.
His friendship with Burke has probably already saved his job at least once, but it’s hard to envision that happening again after the GM’s playoff pronouncements and the addition of more NHL head coaching experience to the staff.
Wilson will be joined by two new faces on the Leafs’ bench – Wilson’s 2010 Team USA assistant and former New York Islanders coach Scott Gordon and former Northeastern University head man Greg Cronin. Unlike the departed Keith Acton and Timmy Hunter, Gordon and Cronin both bring head coaching experience to the table. Rob Zettler returns as an assistant in what seems to be a concession intended to appease Wilson, who brought the former Leaf back to Toronto after originally hiring him in San Jose.
It bears pointing out that Gordon’s tenure on the Island ended 17 games into a third failed season that makes Wilson’s time in Toronto look Bowman-like (64-94-23) and Cronin was done at Northeastern after being linked to shady recruiting violations.
That being said, the mere changes served as a sign that Burke’s continued overhaul of the club wasn’t exclusive to the on-ice product. Gordon and Cronin both have pre-existing relationships with Wilson, but it’s no coincidence that they bring more of a leading presence – and less of a complementary one – than the outgoing Acton and Hunter.
There’s a lot working for Wilson this year – the best team he’s iced since arriving in Toronto and a strong working relationship with a GM who has shown a capability to make bold moves. But there also happens to be plenty working against him in the form of mounting pressure (both internally and externally). His Leafs got close last year and nothing but a postseason appearance will appease the restless natives, Gordon and Cronin serve as a constant reminder of his ultimate replace-ability and the club could be in tough against an improved Eastern Conference with playoff spots looking hard to come by.
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Written by Ben Fisher