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Burke's Faith Remains In Wilson

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs

People talk about the weather all the time, Mark Twain said, but no one does anything about it.

People talk about fairness all the time. Brian Burke even did Monday afternoon when giving his reasons for extending Ron Wilson’s contract.

“It's easy to say ‘fire the coach’ when the team isn't winning, but when you haven't given the coaching staff good enough players, I don't think it's fair,” he said.

Brian Burke thinks and speaks about fairness more than just about anyone I know but listening to someone go on about fairness is like sitting through a straight-faced speech on the sinking of Atlantis.

The Leafs have finished 24th, 29th and 22nd in Wilson’s first three seasons.  They have been outscored 924-792 over his tenure.

Wilson has won 119 games, lost 120 and suffered another 42 defeats in overtime or in the shootout.

Anyone out there think those results are out of line with the Leafs’ talent level? Anyone think Wilson could have gotten more out of Matt Stajan, Ian White, Jason Blake or Vesa Toskala?

Did the active leader in NHL coaching victories forget how to win when he cleared customs?

Didn’t think so.

None of this has much to do with fairness.  Pork bellies are a commodity. Fairness is a theory.

Like pouting starlets, Ilya Kovalchuk and Alex Ovechkin decided they no longer felt moved to play for their coaches. That meant closing time for John MacLean and Bruce Boudreau.

Coaches in other precincts are gassed unfairly as a matter of course. Just look east to Montreal, the only franchise in the NHL with the cultural sensitivity to fire French-speaking coaches so they can enjoy greater success somewhere else.

If you think Brian Burke extended Ron Wilson out of a sense of fairness, or out of an unwillingness to give a good friend the pipe, you sir or madam are missing the armada not just the boat.

Burke thinks the only real window to evaluate Wilson has come over the last 12 months. It’s not about being fair. It’s about being smart. Here’s what goes on under all that hair.

1. Burke recognizes Wilson has nudged Phil Kessel, Joffrey Lupul, Tyler Bozak and Carl Gunnarsson into their best hockey.

2.  Wilson has delivered the accountability he has long preached.  When Jake Gardiner earned his way onto the team, Wilson siphoned him to the top of the club in minutes played. When Gardiner stumbled, he sat out and then delivered one of his best games of the season on Long Island.  Luke Schenn was scratched in early November after a streak of poor play. Schenn has looked better since and his plus-5 is tied for the team’s best.

3. Wilson looked past meagre goal totals when he saw players delivering in other ways. Nikolai Kulemin remains in the lineup despite the worst slump of his career because he has continued to contribute defensively and in puck pursuit. Wilson hasn’t been dissuaded by Matt Frattin’s struggles to score but instead rewarded him for his 200-foot-game.

Has everything worked out well? Not even close.

The choice of Philippe Dupuis over Joey Crabb or Darryl Boyce seems ludicrous. The team’s terrible play while shorthanded lingers like some sort of permanent bad smell.  The Leafs sit last on the kill after finishing 30th last year, 28th the year before that and 30th in Wilson’s first season. You don’t need 20 great players for a solid penalty kill. You need eight competent ones and a good plan.

The Leafs defensive shortcomings extend well past special teams. Let’s talk about right now.
The Leafs are 24th overall in goals against. Five on five, the Leafs are 17th with a poor 3.17 goals surrendered per game. Someone has to own that.

Brian Burke closed his eyes, looked at his team, and wondered what he would do if the guy behind the bench wasn’t Ron Wilson. Continuity, naturally enough, counted.

“It's important for the players to know that the coach isn't going anywhere,” Burke said. “When the coach goes into the cage he needs the chair and the whip, not just one."

But here is the only question that matters. What if it was someone else coaching the Leafs on a one-year deal? Would Burke, based on what he has seen the last 12 months, have given that coach some extra term?

Turns out the answer is yes, not wholly because, or maybe even partially because doing so would have been fair.

Instead, Burke extended Wilson because he thought the Leafs could win more games with Wilson than with someone else. Anyone else.

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