Losing The Room

Jonathan Willis
December 21 2010 07:44PM

I’ve noticed a funny thing about teams with problems: pretty much every time, there’s a rather large outcry from a certain segment of the fanbase that the head coach has lost the room, can’t motivate his players, is too critical, is too soft, or something else of that nature.

Ron Wilson is not an exception.

My problem – not just in this specific example, but rather in all of them – is that the reality is that the fans don’t have a clue. I’ve yet to meet a fan championing or criticizing a specific coach who has much first-hand knowledge from time spent around the coach and the players.

No, as a rule they base their impressions on body language, comments to the media by the coach, and the often oblique comments media members make. It’s hearsay, and while we all have our own crazy, unsubstantiated opinions, the reality is that we really don’t know.

That’s not to say we can’t judge coaches. Special teams are often cited as an area where coaches have some influence, so if an NHL coach has a variety of competent penalty-killers/power play specialist and can’t make those special teams work, perhaps there’s a tactical problem.

We can look at line-up decisions, although these often come down to personal preference (digression: for instance, as an Oilers fan, I was told repeatedly by other fans that Pat Quinn’s ‘three offensive lines,’ lack of line-matching, and love for grit was going to fix all the problems evil Craig MacTavish and his love of grinders but hatred for grit was creating. One season later and a brief stint by Jean-Francois Jacques on the top line, that theory doesn’t get bandied about much anymore. Anyway…).

We can observe how the coach handles his goaltenders’ playing time, how many minutes he gives to various forwards and defencemen and things of that nature. In other words, there are plenty of things we can consider.

That, in a nutshell, is my problem with Steve Lansky’s article on Leafs’ head coach Ron Wilson. To be sure, the arguments he makes are popular ones right now, and he’s hardly the only one making them, but they aren’t ones outsiders are equipped to make.

Lansky complains about Wilson’s demeanour. He complains that he’s grumpy when he shouldn’t be and not grumpy when he should be. He takes what he describes as a blank look at one moment while on the bench and infers that the message sent to the players by that look was one of indifference.

There might be a case to be made – I’m not really arguing for or against Wilson here. But taking body language, trotting out some lines about motivation and complaining that he can’t forge unity don’t make that case. We, as fans, are not equipped to judge the relationship between a coach and his team.

We see a tiny fraction of that relationship, we don’t get honest thoughts from either party on the relationship – player statements are cautious and generic, and coaches are frequently dishonest or opaque with the media – and some looks from the bench and our judgement of the coach’s mood aren’t nearly enough to compensate.

I’m not even saying that Lansky’s wrong here – maybe Wilson’s a terrible motivator, hated by his players, and completely indifferent to the outcome of each and every game. I’ve yet to see any evidence one way or the other.

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Jonathan Willis is a freelance writer. He currently works for Oilers Nation, the Edmonton Journal and Bleacher Report. He's co-written three books and worked for myriad websites, including Grantland, ESPN, The Score, and Hockey Prospectus. He was previously the founder and managing editor of Copper & Blue.
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#1 Steve Lansky
December 22 2010, 08:20AM
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I understand where you are coming from Jonathan and, you are correct, only the people in the room can thoroughly and completely judge a coach's effectiveness.

Problem is, as observers, we must judge it to a small degree. It's human nature. We can judge it by how his players perform on the ice. By his players' preparedness. By how he and his players respond to adversity.

I truly believe there are some very talented players on the Leafs' hockey club. If they are underperforming, I feel very comfortable judging the direct connection between coaching and that lack of performance.

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#2 Rexall Robots
December 22 2010, 09:57AM
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Have to agree with Steve on this one. Coaches are judged on the performance of their players. If one player is underperforming, the onus is on the player to remediate his approach and improve his play, albeit with the guidance of the coaching staff. If the collective group is failing to make forward progress, the coach is the one responsible.

At the NHL level, the players all have the ability to at least compete, if not win a hockey game, on a nightly basis. If the coach can't get his players to compete, he might not be the right guy for the job.

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#3 Jonathan Willis
December 22 2010, 12:06PM
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@ Steve Lansky:

I see what you're saying, and I understand it. And you're right; it is human nature, and something I've been guilty of myself from time to time.

I'd just like to see more hard facts in coaching debates than we generally have. Rexall Robots, in the second comment here, talks about getting players to compete - but that's not something we can quantify. I'd like to focus less on those subjective calls and more on things like lineup decisions and strategy.

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#4 Rexall Robots
December 22 2010, 12:42PM
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Jonathan - Here are a couple of stats.

Wins

Edmonton - 12 (Tied for 27th in the NHL) Toronto - 12 (Tied for 27th in the NHL)

PP %

Edmonton - 16.1% (24th in the NHL) Toronto - 16.9% (18th in the NHL)

PK%

Edmonton - 71.3% (30th in the NHL) Toronto - 76.5% (29th in the NHL)

Some pretty basic ones, but basically you are looking at two pretty similar teams. Add in that on any given night, both teams could be dressing the youngest lineups in the NHL.

So why are Leaf fans calling for Wilson's head while Renney is being applauded for how he is handling the Oilers?

Playoff expectations? Perhaps.

As Steve mentioned, it comes down to a lack of performance on the ice. While tough to measure using stats, hockey is very much a game where you can tell who is putting forth the effort and who isn't. Watch a Montreal Canadiens or Vancouver Canucks game and try arguing that they are only successful because of tactics and strategy. The work ethic of those teams is through the roof. Leafs and Oiler fans alike expect the same from their teams. After a dreadful start, it looks the Oilers are competing. In Toronto, the Leaf faithful are busy chowing down on Eggos waiting for a consistent effort to arrive.

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#6 Pension Plan Puppets
December 22 2010, 02:26PM
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Amen Jonathan. Thanks for dropping by to clear up the nonsense.

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#7 Soft Hands McSteeley - FIST Movement
December 22 2010, 03:16PM
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Pension Plan Puppets wrote:

Amen Jonathan. Thanks for dropping by to clear up the nonsense.

WOAH WOAH WOAH... Someone has an opinion different from the writer's and your not re-writing their comments? whats wrong? did someone finally cut the string on your ridiculous tirade as a Nation writer?

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#8 positivebrontefan
December 22 2010, 07:47PM
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I agree somewhat with your article Jonathan but one thing that sticks with me from in the preseason was Wilson bragging on TSN how much he was looking forward to making the cuts during the preseason. It just oozed the kind of arrogance that can turn a player off. There was no reason for it. I wasn't a big fan of his while he was in San Jose either. IMO it's the same kind of attitude Burke has. There's no need for it.

Steve; what we see on MSM is obviously a small part of what goes on in a coaches world but I have to say that no one can deny the change in his body language from the beginning of the season till now.

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#10 Bramptonite
December 23 2010, 01:58PM
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Any chance the Flames fans were right all along about Phanuef? Instead of being devastated, Flames fans were jubilant that he was off their team. Their only regret (judging for comments left on TSN articles) was that they didn't get enough, whereas other teams would've gave a lot more for this over-priced "superstar". I think we both lost the trade on this one...Leafs fans and Flames fans. And we made him captain??? sheesh

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#11 positivebrontefan
December 23 2010, 11:45PM
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Jonathan Willis wrote:

Oh, I don't like Wilson at all. I think he's a jerk and a pompous ass, based on media quotes.

Unfortunately, there are more than a few jerks and pompous asses who turned out to be pretty good coaches.

Well Iron Mike Keenan did win a cup...

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