It shouldn’t come as a surprise for anyone following the Toronto Maple Leafs in great detail: Head coach Ron Wilson isn’t going anywhere – even if his team misses the NHL postseason for a third year in a row.
General manager Brian Burke confirmed as much Wednesday, saying Wilson has “done a marvellous job” and would remain behind the bench for 2011-12.
Wilson has one year remaining on a four-year deal he signed in the summer of 2008, but spent much of the first half of this season under fire as Toronto sank to the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings.
The Leafs have since orchestrated a remarkable turnaround, going 22-13-6 since Jan. 1, in their finest sustained stretch under Wilson.
“I said back in the fall, we would not consider a change, even when all the hounds were baying,” Burke said. “I feel the same way now. Ron is coaching this team next year.”
Burke declined to comment on “contractual matters,” but Wilson said he isn’t concerned with getting an extension at this point in time.
“I’m not worried about anything like that now,” the coach said. “I’m sure it will [take care of itself]. I’ve got a contract for next year, so beyond that doesn’t bother me.”
One of the winningest coaches in NHL history before he arrived in Toronto, Wilson’s Leafs teams have struggled, with several lengthy losing streaks in his first season and a 29th-place finish a year ago.
In 2010-11, Toronto appeared headed for a similar disastrous campaign as recently as the all-star break, when it had the fifth-worst record in the NHL and was preparing to unload veterans before the Feb. 28 trade deadline.
Wilson’s charges, however, have since been one of the hotter teams in the league – something the players say is a credit to a coaching staff which hasn’t received much praise the past three seasons.
“Everybody gets criticized if you have a losing club,” said centre Darryl Boyce, who has played well in an energy role since being recalled Dec. 30. “Usually, it falls on the coach, even when players aren’t doing their job.
“I’m sure the coaches have taken a lot of heat for things that probably they’re not really responsible for. Since I’ve been here, he’s been great.”
The biggest difference between Wilson’s first 2 1/2 seasons and the team’s recent surge has come in net, as rookie James Reimer has given the Leafs their first taste of star-quality goaltending in years.
Toronto finished dead last in the NHL in team save percentage the past two years, posting a .885 mark in Wilson’s first season and .892 in his second. And, until Reimer began to start in January, the Leafs were on pace to finish under .900 again.
Toronto was outscored 108-82 in its first 36 games, but with Reimer’s .922 save percentage keeping his team in many matches, Wilson’s methods suddenly seem much more effective. Over the past 41 games, the Leafs have scored almost as many goals as they’ve allowed (119-122).
A surprising amount of their success has been due to a turnaround on offence, too, as after averaging a near league-low 2.28 goals per game before New Year’s Eve, Toronto has scored 2.86 a game since the all-star break.
Wilson feels the shift has come as a young team has finally found its way – even if it may be too late to sneak into the playoffs, given the Maple Leafs are seven points back with five games left heading into Thursday’s match against the Boston Bruins.
“This isn’t like a two-week wonder,” Wilson said. “This is going on since the first of January. We’ve got a very healthy record. We keep improving, game to game. We may run out of time here, before the end, and not make the playoffs, but we’ve certainly got a lot of things to build on.”
And he will be the one to attempt do just that next season.