TORONTO - The perpendicular world of Ron Wilson is in vogue as yet another Maple Leafs season is set to begin.
Never has Wilson begun a season under such scrutiny in his time as Toronto coach, and never has he liked his Leafs lineup more than he does right now.
He has always talked a better game than his Maple Leafs have played since he arrived, promising the world but delivering something less. That’s what makes him both engaging and annoying. This is his last real shot for survival. He is coaching for a contract. There is no next year for Wilson if this isn’t a playoff season.
“It seems I’ve always been under heat here, so no matter what we do, there’s going to be pressure,” said Wilson, after Tuesday’s practice. “I’m used to that. Whatever happens, happens.”
The words may read like he’s being flippant, but he’s not. In his fourth season coaching the Leafs, he knows better than anyone that failure is no longer an option. His contract is up. So, just about, is his time.
The belief Brian Burke has in him is real but even Burke is smart enough to know the same coach can’t miss the playoffs four years in a row and continue on the job unless that coach’s name is Barry Trotz.
Wilson is used to both pressure and expectations. He needs to make the playoffs. He needs to get off to a decent start. He needs to avoid the early season swoon and mid-season collapse that has hindered his previous seasons. And he’s feeling bullish about the team knowing two things: 1) He has no real idea what his starting lineup will look like Thursday night against Montreal 2) He hates the Leafs early season schedule, with too many home games against too many opponents of a lesser calibre.
He’d rather spend a game or two on the road before the home opener. He likes the idea of a team that didn’t spend a single night away during training camp to spend some team building time. But he can’t control the schedule. That and his players’ health.
He loves his new roster but has no shortage of issues as the season begins.
First-line centre Tim Connolly declared himself doubtful to play against Montreal. Matthew Lombardi is ready to play, but how ready after being off a year and playing in just one pre-season game? Mikhail Grabovski isn’t 100% and neither is Tyler Bozak, which means he’s unsure what his first, second or third line may be. Add to that the fact that Clarke MacArthur is suspended for the first two games, defenceman Cody Franson is unhappy about being benched, and James Reimer seemed out of position too much in the pre-season and you’d think Wilson would be worried.
But he calls this the best team he has had in Toronto. He is counting, as is management, that the way the team finished last season will correlate to the way it starts this season.
The history of that doesn’t necessarily work in his favour.
The last Paul Maurice team to miss the playoffs and the only Pat Quinn team to miss the playoffs had terrific last months of the season prior to going back in the crapper.
Wilson’s challenge this year: To avoid getting behind too many teams in the race for eighth place.
He is doing that with a roster with not a single player named to TSN’s list of the Top 50 players in the NHL. In fact, the large panel of experienced voters who came up with the TSN list nominated 96 different players for their Top 50 lists. Not one of them was a Leaf.
You win in hockey when your best players are your best players. And the Leafs best players aren’t of the same calibre of most of the teams they will have to beat out for a playoff challenge.
That doesn’t work in his favour. Neither do the numbers, his three-year curse in Toronto, work in his favour.
Wilson took the Toronto job promising an end to special teams woes. It hasn’t happened. Three years of Wilson and the Leafs were 28th, 30th and 30th on the penalty kill. They were 16th, 30th and 22nd on the power play. Last season, they allowed 33 more goals than they scored, were 11th in the Eastern Conference in goals for, third worst in goals against, 11th in the conference in home wins, ninth in road wins. All of that has to change now.
“We’re a better team,” said Wilson.
For his sake, for his future here, they’d better be.