Ron Wilson is fun to watch.
In fact, some nights the Leafs coach will be the best show in Leafsland.
No Toronto coach has been so willing to flaunt convention since Roger Neilson.
Take Tuesday night. The Leafs and Ducks were tied 2-2 and entering the shootout. Career-wise, Vesa Toskala is 2-9 with a save percentage of .486. There is another more daunting statistic. Goalies brought in had been scored on six of seven times.
So if you are picking your poison, why not choose the one that allows the player to shoulder the blame? Had Wilson stuck to his goalie, not one reporter would have asked Wilson about why he didn’t substitute Joseph for Toskala. Guaranteed.
Off the bench came Curtis Joseph who was beaten by Teemu Selanne and Corey Perry. The Leafs lost their third straight shootout, but this time, they went down swinging.
The message to Toskala is not subtle. He has to get better or suffer the embarrassment of being yanked every time his team goes into penalty shots. The message is incidental. This was not a rebuff directed toward the goalie. Still, goalies have rebelled in that situation. Wilson goes way back with Toskala in San Jose. On most nights, Toskala has to be the Leafs best player. Didn’t matter.
This is the Ron Wilson way. It has been demonstrated through the preseason and now, six games into the real deal, it is being proven on a daily basis.
Jason Blake has one meaningless goal and two assists and is sitting at plus-one this season. Wilson didn’t like what he saw in the early stages of the Ducks game. Wilson and Blake go way back. Wilson has coached him countless times with Team USA. Blake is also in the second year of a big contract. Didn’t matter.
“He (Blake) was on the fourth line in the second and third period and we outshot them 28-4,” Wilson explained. “He might be on the fourth line (against Boston on Thursday). He might not be playing. We’ll see.”
Yes, we will. Who could resist?
Wilson sent Matt Stajan to the press box for a night. He dropped Alexei Ponikarovsky way down the lineup. He is critical of his top defencemen, Tomas Kaberle and Pavel Kubina, for skating rather than passing the puck up-ice.
Wilson is a dedicated line juggler and through coach Rob Zettler, he freelances the defenceman as well. He moved Ian White to forward in the preseason.
His goal is nothing less than the end of the salad days for marginal or unmotivated players and he seems to see a media complicit in the problem.
“I have to break through some of the mindset that’s been here after three seasons of not making the playoffs,” Wilson said.
“It might be unorthodox but I think the players will understand that I’m serious about entitlement. You don’t have a right to play because someone in the media likes you or some fans like you or you have a fan club. It’s the results you produce on the ice. Not enough buys have produced to even have that sense of entitlement.”
To hear Wilson tell it, the media is an enabler of bloated senses of self-worth.
If they (players) were somewhere else other than Toronto, a lot of guys wouldn’t be regarded as highly as they think they’re regarded here. That’s what my job here, to make sure we have a standard or level of play. I won’t be influenced by what I read in the paper or see on television.
“I have the best seat in the house to see if that’s happening. I have the advantage of seeing body language, the look in people’s eyes, if they’re into it or not and the hardest place to see that from is the press box.”
In other words, expect the unexpected. The players know the deal. They still get paid.
“I know what Ron expects of me,” Blake said. “Obviously, it’s not happening. I have to look in the mirror and go from there.”
Wilson is eager to insert Ryan Hollweg back into the lineup in Boston. Hollweg will be eligible to return after a three-game suspension.
“I’d certainly like to get him in there. Hopefully he’s learned his lesson and he understands the next suspension will be four (games) or actually a lot longer,” he said.
“He doesn’t want to hurt the team and I want to make him a little bit more of a hockey player. He can skate and get in on the forecheck and that can be a valuable asset for us.”