The subject of Ron Wilson’s future in Toronto has been a popular one for fans and media alike for quite some time now. Last season, of course, the question was typically, “So, how soon should the Leafs fire Wilson?” as opposed to the more favoured, “Should the Leafs give Wilson an extension now?” question of 2011-12.
Wilson’s contract expires at the end of this season. Should the Leafs be looking at a second tour of duty for the polarizing head coach, or looking elsewhere?
There seems to be no media consensus on the question. Some say it’s a bad idea, others say the Leafs should get it done now, while still others argue that it wouldn’t be a bad idea to wait until we see how the season plays out.
With regard to the third argument, certainly the Leafs shouldn’t feel pressured to get something done immediately. If there is one axiomatic truth when it comes to the NHL head coaching market, it is this: there are a lot of competent, qualified coaches out there and a supremely limited number of openings. The Leafs have time here. It isn’t like the free agent market; nobody will come swooping in the day after the season’s 82nd game to steal Wilson away from Toronto.
It’s also far from a foregone conclusion that this season is going to be a successful one in Toronto. True, the Leafs sit sixth in the Eastern Conference, but they’ve also played more games than practically anyone else (the exception: Carolina, a club that has used its 30 games to secure 15th overall in the East – with five games in hand on the Islanders, a five point lead should be secure, but the Islanders are full of reverse-clutch so one never knows) and the fact of the matter is that they’re still living off their performance in the opening month of the season. Observe the monthly records:
- October: 7-3-1
- November: 7-6-1
- December: 1-1-1 (so far, with seven of the remaining 10 games on the road)
Put it all together, and since that beautiful start the Leafs have gone 8-7-2 – an 87-point pace, just two points better than what they managed last season. Are they the world-beaters of October, the same-as-last-year club of November/December, or some combination of the two? Based on their record at this point, it’s a little difficult to say for sure what they are.
Then there is the item that has haunted Wilson’s Leafs since the day he was hired: special teams. It’s always been something of an oddity that Wilson’s special teams in Toronto have performed so poorly; after all, in Wilson’s final season with San Jose the Sharks had the best penalty kill in the game and the year before that they’d had the second-best power play in the NHL.
Still, as difficult as those failings have been to explain, they have been real, and at this point I don’t think it is clear that the replacement of Wilson’s assistants has corrected the problem. Over at Pension Plan Puppets, Steve Burtch argues that the power play has been very good and that many teams with good coaching have poor penalty kills, but I’d argue that both of those points need closer examination.
Toronto’s power play has been excellent so far this season, but what is troubling is how they’re getting their goals. In 5-on-4 situations, the Leafs have a 19.8% shooting percentage – far and away the best in the league (one in five shots are goals!). Last season, that number was 12.2%, while the best team in the league (Vancouver) scored on 16.6% of their shots. Given that in 2009-10, the Leafs had the worst 5-on-4 shooting percentage in the game (8.9%) and that no team has been able to maintain a 20% shooting pace for a whole season during the time the data has been recorded, I expect that number to fall off.
The news on the penalty kill is a little better, even though the number right now isn’t very good. Burtch points to teams like San Jose and Chicago that have poor penalty kills as a defense of the Leafs’ failings, but neither Chicago nor San Jose have the same record of terrible penalty-killing that the Leafs have accrued over Wilson’s tenure. Both teams were very good as recently as 2009-10; the Leafs have been bad much longer.
However, things are improving. Back on November 14 (with the Leafs’ PK ranked 30th overall), I predicted the Leafs penalty kill would improve, because their save percentage (0.803) was far worse than the worst post-lockout team. Today, the penalty-kill has climbed to 27th overall, and the save percentage sits at 0.836. Things have turned around, so despite the terrible rating, the Leafs could end the year with a much better penalty kill than they’ve had the last few years.
The team’s overall record, the power play, and the penalty-kill all have one thing in common, though: whatever projections we make, we haven’t seen the end of the story yet. Will the power play fall to Earth? Will the penalty-kill keep improving? Will the Leafs be the team they were in October or the team they were in November? We don’t have the answers to these questions yet – and given how linked the answers of those questions are to Ron Wilson’s performance – it might be nice to have those answers.
The smart course of action, at this point, is to wait. There’s no need to extend Wilson until we see how things play out.