Nobody knows for certain when general manager Brian Burke took off the blinders and finally realized Ron Wilson was coaching the Toronto Maple Leafs backward, coaching a team that Burke believes is good enough to be in the playoffs not just out of the postseason but also coaching it into a position where the signs of a new “blue and white disease” were beginning to manifest themselves.
But that doesn’t matter this morning. The fact is that Friday night in Montreal, hours after putting his team through a practice, Wilson was fired by his former college teammate, undone by a recent 1-9-1 run that saw the Maple Leafs almost single-handedly open the playoff door for four other teams. Randy Carlyle, who won the Stanley Cup in 2007 with an Anaheim Ducks team of which Burke was the GM, will be behind the bench Saturday night when the Leafs play the Montreal Canadiens at the Bell Centre.
Carlyle was fired as head coach of the Ducks on Nov. 30, in his seventh season with the team. The move means Leafs players will hear a new voice starting Saturday – boy, will they hear a new voice – but Carlyle’s tongue can in fact be sharper than that of his predecessor.
These will not be kinder, gentler times, in other words.
“This was not an easy decision for me,” Burke said in a press release put out by the team at 9:19 p.m. ET. “I want to thank Ron for all of his hard work and dedication to our organization over the past four seasons.”
Burke spent the day in Boston at the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference at MIT pontificating about the proper place of statistics in sports, doing the big-picture thing the way only he can do. Normally quick to rise to the defence of anybody in the organization he feels is being slighted, Burke was strangely quiet for the previous two days after Wilson (whose record with the Leafs was 130-135-45) was serenaded by chants of “Fire Wilson” in a 5-3 loss to the Florida Panthers on Tuesday, Wilson’s 1,400th career game behind the bench. Wednesday, the Maple Leafs blew a 3-1 lead en route to a 5-4 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks in which one of the unfortunate hallmarks of Wilson’s tenure in Toronto – lousy play in their own end – contributed mightily to the setback.
Only the most died-in-the-wool optimist couldn’t see the signs of rot setting in throughout the team. They became the masters of saying all the right things in post-game interviews and doing few of the right things on the ice. Wednesday, all the talk before the game according to captain Dion Phaneuf was about focus and the importance of controlling playoff destiny in the final 20 games. Then the Leafs went out and fell behind 2-0 within mere minutes.
It is true that Burke carries the blame for the fact the Leafs entered the season with a pair of unproven goalies – and if you thought Wilson’s bedside manner with Jonas Gustavsson and James Reimer was slightly indelicate, the new guy doesn’t do touchy-feely all that well, either – and also true that the Leafs finally made improvement in their special teams. But this season was marked by a startling regression in the play of youngsters Luke Schenn and Nikolai Kulemin in particular, two players who blossomed under Wilson, and that’s never a good sign – particularly for an organization whose GM spent the better part of four years weeding out what he thought were faint-hearted and modestly talented holdovers from the previous regime, a regime that actually hired Wilson under interim GM Cliff Fletcher. Burke believes he has a solid foundation now – witness his blustery tone at Monday’s trade deadline when he boasted of turning down four different trades that would have brought in first-round draft picks.
Wilson’s job status has been an open topic of conversation for a week, with the tone changing from if to when. Dallas Eakins, the head coach of the American Hockey League’s Toronto Marlies, was a trendy choice but Burke has said he doesn’t think the Maple Leafs job is an entry-level position and this hiring will be taken as a sign that Burke wants this team to get into the playoffs after missing the previous six postseasons, at a time when the stewardship of team owner Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment is in flux. Assistant coach Rob Zettler was re-assigned as part of Friday’s coaching move, so it would not be a surprise if Eakins is an assistant coach on Carlyle’s staff next season but in the meantime, stand back. Things changed Friday night, but they’re no less combustible.