The Respectively Strange Cases of Ron Wilson and Brent Sutter

A coach is hired, given a pretty good roster (including a legitimate starting goaltender- who's sometimes excellent and sometimes less than excellent, a top offensive player, and a great set of defensemen), three years to turn it into a playoff team (which it had already been) and fails to do basically anything but flounder around and narrowly miss the playoffs repeatedly.

Another coach is hired, and while he's given some good offensive players, his goaltending is terrible and the defensive depth is entirely lacking. He, of course, also fails to make the playoffs. If you're the GM of either of these coaches, what do you do?

Clearly the answer is retain the coach who failed to do anything with the decent roster and fire the one who failed to do anything with the poor roster. At least, that's what NHL GM's would do.

Brent Sutter is likely looking at a third straight season of missing the playoffs. When he was hired, he was hired for one thing only: get the team over the hump into the second round. Calgary was becoming famous for its consecutive first round exits at this point, so the former junior coach of Dion Phaneuf was brought in from New Jersey (at the cost of a slightly higher first round pick) to teach defensive responsibility. This didn't go so well.

Throughout his first season, rumors abounded of arguments and fights in the locker room constantly. Between Phaneuf and Robyn Regehr, between Jarome Iginla and Brent Sutter, between Brent Sutter and Dion Phaneuf, and between Brent Sutter and his brother GM Darryl Sutter. Not the best way to start off with a new team.

Of course, the departure of Phaneuf that came mid-way through the season is well documented now: Phaneuf, Fredrik Sjostrom, and Keith Aulie were traded for Matt Stajan, Niklas Hagman, Ian White, and Jamal Mayers- one of whom remains on the Calgary roster in a diminished role. This, of course, highlighted Darryl Sutter's inability to negotiate, evaluate talent, understand what "good contracts" are, and so on. Again, this is all well-documented.

What is seemingly never mentioned, though, is that Brent Sutter was partially brought in to help revitalize Dion Phaneuf's game. Clearly, the trade wasn't a case of "This team offered a heckuva deal so we had to take it!". Rather, the trade was one of desperation, one that makes zero sense in hindsight when considering the coaching of Brent Sutter.

The Flames, unsurprisingly, failed to make the playoffs in 2009-10. They failed in 2010-11 as well. While the playoffs remain a possibility for 2011-12, it's still unlikely, especially given the team's penchant for disappearing for stretches at a time.

Despite all this, Brent Sutter remains. True, he is on the final year of his contract. And true, a typical NHL coach doesn't make his team significantly better or worse. However, Brent Sutter is far worse than a typical NHL coach. At the very least, his coaching in Calgary is worse than that of most NHL coaches.

Across Canada, however, Ron Wilson was having an entirely different experience. Brought in shortly before his friend Brian Burke was hired to GM, Wilson was given a very poor roster with nothing on it. A team that sported such dynamic players as Matt Stajan, Niklas Hagman, Ian White, Jamal Mayers, and Lee Stempniak of course disappointed- good coach or not.

The next year was anything but an improvement. Goaltending was still terrible, the defense was still immobile, and Stajan, Hagman, White and Mayers were still players on the Leafs for most of the year. Despite dealing for Phil Kessel, the Toronto Maple Leafs steadfastly refused to improve (unless you consider getting rid of Vesa Toskala an improvement). Brian Burke did manage to acquire Dion Phaneuf at that time, and things began to look a little sunnier for the Maple Leafs, despite seeing their first round draft pick end up as second overall.

Last season saw things actually turn around. Dion Phaneuf looked close to the player he's paid to be and Vesa Toskala was no longer a Leaf, much less an NHL goaltender. The defense was even mildly improved to go along with the improved play of Phil Kessel. Mikhail Grabovski began to truly develop into the strong two-way center he is today, and James Reimer played out of his mind for 37 games.

The Toronto train kept rolling this season after a strong (but fruitless) end to the last, with Phil Kessel seemingly scoring a goal a game and Dion Phaneuf changing the music in the locker room every single day. Wilson was given a 4 year contract extension, and the Leafs playoff drought was about to end- until the wheels came off.

Standing at 25-19-6 at the end of January, Maple Leafs fans were thrilled. Clearly, this is what the long suffering insufferable fans deserved. And then the Leafs lost 10 of the last 11 games in February and all hell broke loose. "Fire Wilson" chants filled the Air Canada Center until March 2nd, when Ron Wilson, who had been given a 4 year contract extension just months before, was replaced by Randy Carlyle.

It hardly seems fair- Wilson was never given quality goaltending, or even a defense the likes of which Calgary has sported. Even now, Calgary's defense seems better than that of Toronto (Jay Bouwmeester helps. A lot.). Ron Wilson managing to get the Leafs anywhere near the playoffs was a miracle, but it didn't save his job.

So why does the Calgary career of Brent Sutter persist while Wilson and the Leafs have parted ways? To put it simply, the media has never had it out for Sutter. In fact, it took the media ages to turn on his brother, despite consistently inept management.

The media has always worn kid gloves when discussing the Flames management and coaching- Sutter rarely gets called out, despite being cold and unlikable in interviews, two traits that almost always turn the media into sharks. Compared to Toronto where the media circled Wilson like so many Great Whites, pouncing on every mispoken word or moment where he changed his mind. The media turned the fans against Wilson, and Burke firing Wilson was more of an act of pity than anything else.

What will it take for Brent Sutter to be shown the door? Maybe the club will just quietly walk away from his contract this summer. Given its history, that seems far-fetched. In the end, Sutter will likely stick around until he has an incredibly poor run that probably won't b entirely his fault.

Wait, he already had one of those? Forget it. Coach for life.

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