Leafs' Wilson feels extension is hard-earned

Leafs' coach Ron Wilson, talks with Nazem Kadri at the end of practice. (CRAIG ROBERTSON/QMI Agecny)

Leafs' coach Ron Wilson, talks with Nazem Kadri at the end of practice. (CRAIG ROBERTSON/QMI Agecny)

LANCY HORNBY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:40 AM ET

Ron Wilson calls his contract extension a measure of well-deserved “combat pay”.

Yet, his fight has just begun. To convert the Maple Leafs into an actual playoff team that can contend for years to come and win the battle of public opinion on whether he deserves more term and salary with no guarantee of a fourth year out of the playoffs.

Wilson wasn’t apologizing on Monday for collecting what some speculate will be close to seven figures on a one- but more likely two-year deal. Nor for his methods 31/2 years into the job, or letting the hockey world know he’d been re-upped via Twitter on Christmas morning. Instead of letting the team announce what it should consider a positive news, Wilson thought Dec. 25 was “appropriate” timing, then said he and general manager Brian Burke had settled on a new deal three or four weeks ago, near when the Leafs won four of five games on a Sun Belt road trip.

No one disputes the Leafs are better (other than the old Achilles heel of penalty-killing), but how much of that success is traced directly to Wilson?

“I’ve coached 19 years and it’s not like I’m a rookie, or that I’m an experiment that could blow up in somebody’s face,” Wilson said. “I have a decent track record and I look more at (the extension) as a sign of respect — respect from the organization more than anything else.”

Wilson is also the longest serving Leafs coach never to have made the playoffs and was asked if that little detail should not hold his feet to the fire a lot closer with about two-thirds of the season still to play.

“I’ve seen lots of coaches (six) get fired this year with lots of term left,” he retorted. “The pressure doesn’t change. After three years, I get an extension, but I could get fired next week for all I know. I have a little bit of combat pay coming.”

Burke, who would not say how much more rope Wilson now has, would likely have run this deal past the outgoing board of directors of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment. But when 2012-13 starts, the new corporate masters from Bell and Rogers will want to see some tangible results.

“Most people understand how we’re going about this,” Wilson said. “When you build a house, you don’t start with the roof, you start with the foundation. If you rush to do it, the first time there’s a storm, you fall apart. We still have a lot of work ahead of us, a ton of work, but we’re a lot better than when I first got here.”

Wilson has always had a lot of bashers in Leaf Nation and among the media, and to miss the playoffs last season after a 4-0 start with a strong paper roster was ample reason to can him in the spring. But a second-half push was all the evidence his old friend Burke needed to let him start the fourth and final year of the deal Wilson signed under caretaker GM Cliff Fletcher.

The 56-year-old Wilson has since been asked to integrate younger players into the lineup, has steered through some key injuries and adapted to a league-wide change in the enforcer’s role.

“I’m having a lot of fun with this group,” Wilson said. “They try, they make mistakes and they bounce back. It’s the way we play the game sometimes. You’re a little more lenient in some situations because they are so young.”

Wilson added that he now knows this team much better, front to back, having had players such as Nikolai Kulemin and Luke Schenn since they broke into the NHL.

“I’ve done my own investigations,” he added. “You have to know the different buttons that help people get going. With players from other organizations (the Leafs have added seven since the second half of last year alone), you do due dilliegence. I’ve talked to a lot of (opposing) coaches: What makes this guy tick, what would you do differently?

“We believe that we are marching forward and keep on improving. The results are showing that now, in the standings and how we play. I’m satisfied, though I think we could have been better.”

But they were good enough to get Wilson a longer leash.


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