Leafs coach raising the bar

STEVE SIMMONS,SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:51 AM ET

At the conclusion of each of the past three hockey seasons, Mats Sundin would shrug his shoulders and have no answer for what was wrong with the Maple Leafs.

He'd say the team was good enough. He'd say he believes this was a playoff team. He'd say he loves the guys in the room.

And then he'd go golfing.

Coach Paul Maurice, in public, never singled out any of his players. In fact, he would go to great lengths to shelter them. Especially with Sundin, whom he would praise as a great leader, great player, great humanitarian -- a regular Nobel hockey player.

Just wasn't great enough to carry the Leafs into the playoffs or to manage to keep Maurice employed as coach.

TALKING THE TALK

And it wasn't much different with Darcy Tucker, a heart-and-soul guy who somehow had lost his way. As the Leafs missed the playoffs year after year, Tucker would talk about how much he loved playing in Toronto, how much he loved his teammates, how close they were to succeeding.

All of which, the standings showed, was hogwash.

Ron Wilson was brought to Toronto to change all that. To get rid of players who settled too easily for defeat. That is his mandate. He is about as subtle as a blizzard and often as chilly. You play his way or you don't play. You learn his methods or you pack your bags. The expectations of performance are clear: He can and does communicate with clarity.

His leash is short. His patience is thin. He thinks nothing about calling out a player in public.

And some people -- most notably and recently Don Cherry -- have a problem with this.

Pat Quinn rarely made his players accountable. His lineups were the same, night in, night out. He rolled his lines. He didn't seem to notice who was hot and who wasn't and how it changed from night to night. His teams, for the most part, were good enough to play that way and succeed.

And when they weren't, he missed the playoffs and was fired.

Maurice rarely made his players accountable. He, like so many Toronto fans, overrated the talent he had around him. He thought he could build a team around Matt Stajan and Carlo Colaiacovo and Alex Steen and the Twin Towers from the former Soviet Union.

Publicly, if not privately, Maurice believed he had a team capable of competing for the Stanley Cup. He also believed in his kids from the Marlies -- Ben Ondrus, Andy Wozniewski, Kris Newbury, John Pohl, Bates Battaglia -- none of whom are in the NHL anymore. All that got him was fired.

Wilson isn't learning how to coach. He knows how to do that. But he must learn how to deal better with the daily grind that is the local media.

Part of coaching the Leafs is understanding that nothing is small. If Wilson moved Ryan Clowe from one line to another last season, nobody noticed and nobody cared. That was coaching in San Jose. If he moves John Mitchell in practice from one line to another, he will be asked about it in his daily scrum with the media.

He isn't calling out the player when he is asked about it. He is answering the question. The question on most days is: Why did you make that change?

Because Jason Blake or Stajan or Colaiacovo or whomever needs to be better to play that role. Wilson is being honest in answering about his moves. But because he makes the moves and his expectations aren't so stagnant, his daily give-and-take with the media easily is interpreted as him being harsh.

You can't change lines in Toronto without bringing attention to it. Just by doing that -- which is coaching -- he is identifying a player with a problem. That's how he always has operated. Environmentally, the problems are louder and more public.

If anyone should understand this, it should be Cherry, who coached in a different time, when media wasn't so prevalent, and who should know from his own television and radio platform the power of having a national voice.

ARROGANT

"He has always been arrogant and pompous, one of those Americans who thinks he knows everything," Cherry said yesterday morning about Wilson on The Fan 590. "It just bugs me, that's all."

No one was more arrogant as a coach than Scotty Bowman and no one was more successful. He wasn't pompous and neither, really, is Wilson. In the early season, on a team with the thinnest collection of forwards in Maple Leafs history, he is coaching his backside off, trying to raise the bar of a team that has easily and annually set it too low.

For that alone, he should be applauded, not castigated.


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