TORONTO - Why?
Why now, if at all?
Why reward Ron Wilson with a contract extension, given his playoff-less history as coach of the Maple Leafs?
These are questions that observers across the National Hockey League must have been asking themselves as they tucked into turkey and all the trimmings on Christmas night.
General manager Brian Burke confirmed on Christmas morning via e-mail that, yes, Wilson got an extension stuffed into his stocking.
Burke refused to comment further, but we should find out in the coming days why he thinks Wilson is the man to take the Leafs into the playoffs and, presumably, to a Stanley Cup.
Wilson tweeted (@coachrw63) the news before 8 a.m., saying: ďHe came! He came!Ē Remember saying that as a little kid? Well he did: I got a new Red Ryder BB gun and a contract extension!Ē
The rush to sign Wilson to an extension ó financial terms and length were not immediately known ó is unnecessary.
PLAY IT OUT
Let the season play out. If youíre Burke, and youíre that confident in Wilson, then doing this in February or March would have been fine. After all, if you know now that Wilson is your guy, what possibly could change in a couple of months?
Hereís the rub with the timing of the extension: It would have been plenty more understandable had the Leafs been running away with the Eastern Conference through 35 games.
But theyíre not close to that. The standings are so tight that, had the Leafs lost their final two games before the break, they would be outside of a playoff berth.
As the standings are now, the Leafs are in sixth place with 40 points. New Jersey and Ottawa are next with 39 points, while Winnipeg is in ninth with 37 points.
A mere three points separate the Leafs from being left out in the cold. Say they had lost to Buffalo and the Islanders on Thursday and Friday, respectively. Is there a smug tweet from Wilson on Christmas morning? Doubtful.
Wilson deserves credit for the Leafsí ability to keep themselves in the playoff hunt despite injuries to numerous integral players. Only captain Dion Phaneuf and forwards Phil Kessel, Joffrey Lupul and Nikolai Kulemin have played in all 35 games so far.
The players who have been in the lineup, almost without fail, have brought a solid effort every night (forget, for a moment, that the Boston Bruins are in the NHL).
But in the bigger picture, despite the signs that things are looking up, nothing as far as the playoffs go is guaranteed next April.
Yes, there are good things happening with the Leafs. Itís a different attitude in the dressing room, but is that because the roster has changed almost entirely under Burke or because of Wilsonís influence?
No longer is losing just accepted as something that happens fairly regularly. As Wilson said after the Leafs won on Long Island on Friday night, his young players think they are going to win every night.
The extension potentially puts Burke in an interesting position. He has to be absolutely, 100% sure that the Leafs will be post-season participants next spring. Yet, thatís impossible to know on Christmas Day. As for that always-bad penalty-kill? Never mind, coach.
If the Leafs miss the playoffs, and Burke was responsible for signing to an extension a coach who couldnít get the team to the playoffs in four years, then the GMís job should come into question.
How on Earth would he sell to the teamís new owners, the fans who dutifully dip into their bank accounts for all things Leafs, the guy down the street, the retaining of Wilson after four seasons of futility?
The basic point in all of this? Forget that Wilson, who hinted on Twitter on Friday night that he knew an extension was coming, made this news public on Christmas Day, when waiting 24 hours would not have made a difference.
Rewarding a coach after three years of no playoffs, in the midst of a season that canít yet provide any true clarity as to how it will end, is plain wrong.