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Kelly: Trading Phil Kessel is the key to overdue rebuild of Maple Leafs Add to ...

In the aftermath of head coach Randy Carlyle’s firing, the Toronto Maple Leafs held history’s least believable wake.

Whatever anyone thinks of the job Carlyle did in Toronto – middling to poor, with a few teasing flashes – he deserved some respectful acknowledgment. It’s not just good manners. These sorts of low moments give healthy organizations the chance to drop their live-to-air faces and show some humanity.

The Leafs’ organization isn’t healthy. That usually works top-down. Toronto is working this differently. It’s rotting from the bottom-up.

They pushed general manager Dave Nonis out to speak first, and on very short notice, because Nonis could be trusted to behave like an adult. They couldn’t risk letting him go after practice – the most obvious way to do it – because that would’ve let the players have the first word.

Nonis said some kind words about Carlyle, and explained the reason he was fired: “The coach is easy to let go.”

Carlyle was fired because his students treated him like a substitute teacher, and because he’s the only guy they can fire. After three wobbly years, he’d begun to visibly lose the plot after a 5-1 loss to Winnipeg. Carlyle could no longer be trusted not to give the sort of unhinged news conference we’d be playing in a loop for months.

Nonis looked suitably mournful. Out on the practice ice, his team looked fine. Actually, they looked fairly chipper – laughing and horsing around.

You don’t need to go out there in sackcloth and ashes, but you’re a terrible team, your leader just got the chop and you’re being filmed. Show some goddamned sense.

But these players are led by someone who has no sense.

Upon opening the dressing room, Phil Kessel – who never talks – decided he wanted to talk first. Dion Phaneuf wears the C. He was supposed to go first. But Kessel was getting antsy and couldn’t wait.

It started out poorly.

“How did you get along with [Carlyle]?”

“It was fine.”

This was said in a tone that suggested it was a whole lot less than fine. One more day. You just had to sell the idea that the locker room was not the world capital of dysfunction for one more day. Kessel couldn’t manage it.

At the end, he wigged out when asked a tough question by Toronto Star columnist Dave Feschuk.

“Phil, it’s been suggested within the organization that you’re a difficult guy to coach. Is there anything to that?”

This is entirely fair, not least because people within the organization do say that. At best, management thinks of Kessel as a Coca-Cola-swilling Holy Fool.

Kessel brushed Feschuk back, channeling De Niro – “You think it’s my fault? Is that what you’re saying? Is that what you’re saying? Is that what you’re saying?”

That was also fair. But as he turned to stomp off, he once again could not help himself.

“This guy’s such an idiot here,” Kessel said, laughing mirthlessly. “He’s always been like that.”

The problem is not that Kessel is socially awkward and has a tendency to lash out when irritated.

It’s that Kessel sets the tone for the entire room. He’s the only star, and as such the de facto alpha. His public numbskullery is a corrosive example to other incipient knuckleheads in the room. And like any locker room anywhere, there are plenty of those.

No one could summon anything resembling a genuine emotion for Carlyle. Twelve hours after he’d been torched, he’d already been forgotten.

Around the same time, Carlyle’s predecessor, Ron Wilson, was ripping Kessel in uncoded terms rarely used in hockey.

“Phil’s problem – and it’s pretty much the way Phil has been his whole career – he’s two weeks on, and two weeks off,” Wilson told TSN Radio. “You can’t rely on Phil … He gets emotional and he lets that affect his game, and his relationship with other players.”

Two weeks on, two weeks off. Wilson’s flame-job on his former star doubles as a description of the Leafs as a whole. To paraphrase one of the masters, I don’t believe in coincidences. I’ve heard of them. I’ve just never seen one.

We can march the effects of locker-room Kesselization right back to SaluteGate.

We don’t know whose idea it was to snub the fans. We don’t know if anyone spoke up against it. We don’t know who did what. All we know is that it happened – revealing a small and increasingly consequential lack of maturity in the team.

That was the moment the Blockhead Junta took control.

Afterward, someone – meaning Phaneuf – should have come out and taken responsibility. It could have been turned into an endearing moment. Instead, they told a few mumbling lies, and trudged forward into another cycle of boom and bust.

If Kessel was the Leafs’ third or fourth man, none of this would matter. He’d be tolerated or appreciated instead of emulated. More natural leaders – players such as Cody Franson or Stéphane Robidas – would take over.

But he’s the very best, and so shapes the room in his own image. It doesn’t matter whether or not he’s trying to turn this into a free-for-all. He’s being watched and either aped or resented by his colleagues. The results are showing in the only place that matters – out on the ice. How else to explain the team’s Jekyll and Hyde performances?

Whoever takes Carlyle’s job will be Kessel’s third coach in Toronto. How many do they have to churn through before someone admits the coach isn’t the problem?

Kessel is a wonderful athlete, bordering on a savant. It’s difficult to let go of that sort of talent. But the Leafs have to, for the long-term health of this club.

Even if what they get in return isn’t equal to what Kessel provides in performance-terms, they might think of this in terms of a whole rather than its parts.

Before they contemplate the small– or large-scale rebuild that begins with a new coach, it’s a time for amputations.

Trade Kessel. Decide who his worst cronies are in the room, and trade them as well. The structure needs extensive repair, but it’s the culture that requires a tear down.

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Follow on Twitter: @cathalkelly

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