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.