Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun discuss the firing of Ron Wilson and hiring of Randy Carlyle by the Maple Leafs.
BURNSIDE: Good evening, my friend. Well, the hammer finally dropped on beleaguered Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Ron Wilson Friday evening. With the team in a 1-9-1 death spiral that has seen what looked like a lock on a playoff berth evaporate into more of the same for a team that hasn’t been invited to the playoff ball since the lockout, GM Brian Burke decided that enough was enough and dismissed his longtime friend. Another Burke protégé, Randy Carlyle, will be behind the Toronto bench Saturday against the Montreal Canadiens, and a source told ESPN.com Friday night that Carlyle will not be the interim coach, but rather a permanent replacement. It was in many ways the natural play for Burke, turning to a man who Burke brought to Anaheim and with whom he won the franchise’s first and only Stanley Cup, in 2007. But this is more than about the familiar than it is about making the right move for a team that has made far too many wrong moves to count. Many will point to Toronto AHL head coach Dallas Eakins as the man who should have been given this opportunity, but I like the Carlyle hire. The Leafs, in spite of their dismal play of late, were just five points out of eighth place, with two games in hand. Carlyle is no-nonsense and he’s not going to be warm and fuzzy with the Toronto media -- a relationship that will bear watching as time progresses -- but he’s a winner, and that’s something the Leafs can’t say they’ve had in any form in a long time.
LEBRUN: It’s of zero surprise to me that Carlyle is back with Burke. The only surprise is that it didn’t happen earlier Friday or on Thursday, when the team had the day off, following another loss in Chicago. But because Carlyle still had another two years left on his Ducks contract past this season, it’s not a quick and easy transaction. In the end, Burke played the only card he had left to salvage the season, given that the trade deadline passed Monday without a notable move. But this is more than just about this season. Once Burke realized he would want Carlyle behind the bench next season in Toronto, there was no point in delaying the firing of Wilson. Might as well get it over with and perhaps even get it turned around for this season as well, although I think they’ve sunk too low now. More importantly, by hiring Carlyle now, the Leafs ensure that no other team nabs what would have been one of the most desired coaches on the market this offseason.
I will say this to Wilson’s defense. The goaltending has been brutal, the team is 28th in goals-against. That’s not the coach’s fault. But in the end, the team was just not responding to Wilson over the past few weeks, and that was obvious. The players were playing like they wanted change.
BURNSIDE: Yes, the goaltending has been brutal, but it’s been sneaky brutal. At times, both James Reimer and Jonas Gustavsson have given the appearance of being NHL-ready, but this latest stretch has been marred by consistent lapses between the pipes. But you’re right about Wilson’s voice having gone tinny on this team. You don’t necessarily have to be a new-generation coach, like a Dan Bylsma, to succeed in the NHL. But you do have to be able to adapt and change and modify your approach and your personality. Wilson seemed incapable of that. The Leafs’ penalty kill was ranked 29th and was a mess that Wilson seemed unable to fix. His demeanor with the media and his players often carried with it a nasty edge that added unneeded tension to an already tense market. We have seen Ken Hitchcock remake himself as an NHL coach this season, and he now looks like the favorite to win the Jack Adams. Bruce Boudreau took over Carlyle’s team in Anaheim and has them back on the edge of the playoff hunt in the Western Conference after a terrible start. Can Carlyle use his experiences in Anaheim and apply them to turning the Leafs around? At the trade deadline Monday, Burke resisted trading off Luke Schenn or Mikhail Grabovski for draft picks, so Carlyle is going to get a full NHL squad to play with. Should be interesting to see if there is that sudden rush of adrenaline with a new coach that produces a few wins to start.
LEBRUN: One thing to remember, as well, is that Burke inherited Wilson as coach, he did not hire him. That gets forgotten sometimes because the two colleagues go back as friends to their days at Providence together. But interim GM Cliff Fletcher hired Wilson in June 2008, before Burke’s arrival as Leafs GM in November 2008. Many have long suspected that hiring was done to make Burke happy months later upon his arrival, but the fact remains it was done before he got there. In other words, Carlyle is Burke’s first coaching hire in Toronto. No small point there, in my opinion, although the fact Burke gave Wilson an extension at Christmas this season will be viewed by some as his first head-coaching move. Still, every GM is allowed one coaching hire, maybe two.
But I look for Carlyle to tighten up Toronto’s play. They’re incredibly sloppy defensively. Yes, the goaltending has been brutal, but the defensive coverage in front of the net has also been horrendous. Carlyle will seek to change those ways.
BURNSIDE: Agreed on the coaching gimmees that most GMs get. I would suggest, though, that having stuck with Wilson as long as he did, likely a season too long and certainly two months too long, Carlyle had better work out or there will be significant pressure on ownership to make wholesale changes. I know the Leafs make a gazillion dollars and losing hasn’t hurt the bottom line, but new ownership of the team means management will be held to different standards. So, here’s the big question: Can Carlyle have an immediate impact on this team and can get it back in the hunt? Washington got waxed by New Jersey on Friday night. The Panthers are inconsistent, the Jets can’t win away from home ... and so there isn’t a clear-cut favorite for that final position in the Eastern Conference playoff bracket. It starts with a relatively easy mark in the Canadiens, who are last in the Eastern Conference, but is it really too late for the Leafs this season -- or did Burke make this move with enough time left to salvage a spot and erase the horror of the recent weeks in Leaf Nation?
LEBRUN: I would have made this move a week ago. I think it’s too late now, even with the turtle race that is the Eastern Conference bottom-bracket playoff-berth pursuit. We shall see if I’m wrong in just over a month’s time.
Enjoy your weekend, Scotty.