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With Carlyle in place, questions remain—about the present and the future

If you weren't able to post a comment on yesterday's Kessel/playoff column because of the technical difficulties here, I invite you to scroll down just below this story to my "apology" post to enter any observations you'd like to make.  Sorry again for the confusion.


The Wilson firing is not exactly a shock.  I had discussed the possibility  here even before the deadline.  I guess my immediate reaction to the dismissal Friday night was simply this:  interesting timing.  Was Burke saving Wilson by doing it while the Leafs were on the road, so Wilson could just remove himself from the situation quietly and, if he chose, not have to deal with endless (and, by definition, meaningless, since he is no longer the Leaf coach) questions.  That makes sense, I suppose.

But as to the move itself, I wondered if, for example, Wilson inadvertently expedited things by saying, in answer to a question about booing the other night, that fans were disappointed that the Leafs didn’t do anything at the deadline?  Did I hear that comment correctly?  If so, we know that  Burke would be very unhappy if one of his own people—even indirectly—questioned, or even appeared to question, his decisions.

Regardless, the writing was on the wall in the summertime, when Burke ordered Wilson to fire two of his assistant coaches, including someone who had been with him for years and years—the capable Tim Hunter.

Whenever management starts clipping a coach’s wings by removing his hand-picked assistants, then you start thinking only a huge reversal in the team’s fortunes will save the head coach’s job.  And that kind of turnaround did not fully come to pass this season in Toronto, though there were clearly times that it looked as though the Leafs had turned at least a “minor” corner in their development.

I’ve posted my views about Wilson for the past two and a half years here, I have little interest in adding much now that he is gone.  I’ll simply say that while I wish he had handled the public aspect of his job with more grace—particularly his relationship with the press—I never doubted he tried his best to turn this team into a winner, just as every Leaf coach in my memory has.  He has been a very good NHL coach, and may well be working again somewhere next season.

Clearly, something made Burke decide to do make the change when he did not really want to do—at least not just yet.  The recent skid certainly was the major factor, but if I had to guess, Burke has been thinking for some time about his options. Remember,  Burke himself ended up exactly where hockey people forecast he would end up long before he arrived here in Toronto.  The guy plans ahead.

I will say one more thing about the decision and it ties into the above point.  I’ve never liked when a GM in any sport fires the coach and already has his replacement waiting in the room next door, ready to take over. And Burke clearly already had decided to hire Carlyle—and only fired Wilson Friday night.  (Otherwise, how do you work out contractual realities, what with Carlyle still being owed for two more seasons in Anaheim?  Someone was talking with Anaheim ownership before tonight...)

I’m sure people will say you have to be prepared, and thus should have a new coach in place.  I just don't like it.  Never have.  I think if you're going to preach loyalty, you don’t even talk to a new coach until you have fired the old guy. That's just how I believe you conduct yourself with people.

In any event, I am relieved, for the record, that Marc Crawford is not the next coach here.  That would have re-united Burke and Crawford from their days in Vancouver.  They were in charge when the Bertuzzi incident occurred, and the optics of that for me (and maybe not just for me) would be terrible.  I won't go on about it but that was such a blot on the NHL, the Canucks and that particular management team, because to me, they were responsible for the behavior of that team.  I’m not interested in seeing them together again.  Nor would I be happy if Brad May was named an assistant coach here, at any point.

Carlyle, though, was the slam-duck candidate.  Hockey folks started talking about his re-uniting with Burke from the day he was let go earlier this season in Anaheim.  Like Wilson, Carlyle has a Leaf pedigree (Wilson played for the Leafs, as did his uncle, Johnny), having been drafted by and playing for the Leafs early in his NHL career in the late 1970s, before being traded to the Penguins (where he won a Norris Trophy).

Carlyle built a solid reputation as a minor-league coach, and of course won the Stanley Cup under Burke for the Ducks in 2007.  So the guy has “won”, he is a demanding taskmaster and would, in theory, impose a stricter defensive approach which would presumably help with the Leafs defensive zone/goaltending woes.

One other side note:  quite often, a GM will move from a "demanding" coach, like Wilson (at least that was his reputation) and replace that person with more of a "player's coach".  However, in this case, Carlyle and Wilson are similar, it seems to me.  Again, Carlyle may be more "defensively-oriented" in terms of systems, but both are seen as disciplinarians.

(Interestingly, I noted that a mainstream media person had reported on Twitter that Carlyle had already "blow off" media requests, implying that was a bad start to the new coach's media relations in the Toronto market.  Perhaps Carlyle was simply respecting that Wilson had just been let go and therefore did not want to conduct interviews until Saturday.  Regardless, Carlyle will be under a microscope like he has not been before, to be sure.)

I would expect the Leafs to come out with a lot of jump against the Habs on Saturday night.  New coaches almost always provide that kind of initial inspiration.  Players want to impress their new coach, and let’s face it, a new voice will be welcome.  Four years, for many coaches, is about all some players can deal with.  Even though the Leaf roster has been turned over many times over these past four seasons, you have to believe that, as things grew increasingly tense over the past three weeks, the room was not a great environment no matter how much the players tried- or how hard Wilson looked for solutions.

So, welcome to Randy Carlyle.  His honeymoon, in this market, will be the next 18 games.  And that’s it.  Why? Leaf fans will expect a nice run the rest of this season, and maybe even a playoff berth.  But they won’t blame Carlyle, obviously, if  that doesn't happen.

But beyond that?  Well, by early next season (after four years with Burke at the helm behind us at that point) fans will want to see a very strong team a year from now.  No more promises of “next year”, or how the team is “improving”.  It better be improved.  It will be about results, about winning.  Plain and simple.

Burke is now the one on the line, as is his self-promoted reputation.  Can’t blame the coach now.  Can’t blame the players—he chose them, after all.

With a new coach and "his roster" four years in at that point,  2012-’13 will have to be about winning—and nothing short of that will, in my mind, be good enough.


  1. I worry about this for a different reason.

    In a year or two Dallas Eakins is going to be absolutely ready to be an NHL coach. I think he's going to be put in charge of some young kids and teach them to become more just like he has with the Marlies.

    I worry that it won't be the Maple Leafs, however Carlyle and Eakins go back to the Winnipeg maybe Eakins moves up.

    Imagine how Eakins fits in with the Oilers in a few years.

  2. Interesting notion, DP. Eakins is well regarded by the Leaf brass, fans and media alike. In fairness, it's usually a bit easier to have that positive vibe around you when you work in the AHL and are the guy "in waiting", but to his credit , he is the one that earned that excellent reputation. It won't be here, unless it's, as you say, as an assistant. But Edmonton? That just might make sense....

  3. I have to say, I was surprised to hear the news. I really thought we were going to ride this "buddy" and "loyalty" train through the season. I'd have liked to see Eakins given a shot because I felt he would be a better fit with this young team (and now, we're certain to lose him).

    You've pretty well (and very pointedly) summed up the feelings of Leaf fans, Michael. This is now completely Burke's team and time to put up or shut up! No more excuses. Winning starts now!


  4. As far as Wilson and Carlyle not being player's coaches... I really think that in Toronto, Wilson was a player's coach. Grabovski went to Burke last year and told him not to fire Wilson - players don't do that for a taskmaster. Wilson learned from his time in San Jose and changed how he interacted with players. Unfortunately, I think his systems implementation suffered because of it.
    I'm excited for Carlyle. I think he's exactly what this team needs to get them to the next level. The Leafs will play a tighter system, hopefully we'll see some more willingness to move player combos around (consistently playing Kulemin with Grabovski despite Kulemin's terrible year has really bothered me) and a real team identity come together, which I think has fallen apart in the new year here.

  5. Your point on Eakins, Caedmon, will be raised quite a bit, I sense, as DP also cited. He will no doubt get a shot somewhere, though there are many fine young/minor-league coaches out there waiting for their shot at one of only 30 NHL gigs....

    As for you final point, it can't be any other way. If they haven't already, Leaf fans (at least some) will tire of "improvement". That won't be good enough next season. And it's not just "playoffs or bust". It will be compete for the Eastern Conference- and win, come playoff time.

    Anything less than that should not be enough to satisfy fans who deserve more. Other organizations have done it in much less time. Thanks Caedmon.

  6. I hear you on Wilson's approach in Toronto, Karina. I was struggling with how to phrase that point, in "comparing" the two coaches. I sense you're right, Wilson had lightened up considerably. Carlyle will be tougher.

    We know that, at first, players will say they love it; that Carlyle is a straight-shooter, demanding, and that's what they need.

    Of course, what else are these guys going to say?

    Two years from now, who knows....

    As always in this market, it will be fun to watch things unfold.

    Thanks Karina.

  7. I'd like to see Eakins get his chance with the Leafs too, but I really don't think this was the right situation to bring him in. And you can't make the right move out of fear of losing a valued employee. Eakins is gonna lead the Marlies through the Calder Cup playoffs, to who knows what result - but that culture of winning, instilling it in Kadri, Colborne, etc. will be big. Seeing the rejuvination of the Marlies has been my greatest reward since Burke took over. He'll get the Leafs there, too.

  8. I agree on the Eakins point. If Burke saw Carlyle as the best fit, that's the move. If Eakins ends up leaving then there is nothing that the organization can do. They will have served Eakins well, and he in turn will have done his job here- what he was hired to do.

    I agree that the Marlies have been built up nicely. I respect your view on Burke, but I'll likely never be really a fan. There is too much negativity I hear about regarding how he "treats" people who question him. That, the Bertuzzi incident, in conjunction with (again, in my eyes only, I realize) his remarkable need to self-promote, re-write history, I just don't respect that.

    But I know many people like/admire him, and that's fine. I'll take Ken Holland, David Poile, guys with class, humility. But that's just me.

    Thanks Karina.

  9. Excellent post, my friend. I agree with everyone you said. Carlyle is going to be under a microscope like he never has been. And next year better bring a "real" contending team.

    I'm happy Wilson is gone. I got sick of his brash, defensive, abrasive handling of the media (and through them, the fans). Plus I despised how he regularly threw his players (goalies especially) under the proverbial bus. It was true that certain players weren't doing their jobs, but you tell him in the locker room, not on TV.

    But to be honest, I wished Dallas Eakins was named head coach. I appreciate that the organization likely wanted to keep Eakins with the Marlies, doing the important job of developing players, which he has been doing very well. Plus the Marlies may make a Calder Cup run this year.

    Still, I thought it was inevitable that Eakins was going to be the head coach of the Leafs. Everyone was saying how much of a "players coach" he is, and I assumed that's what the team needs right now. Clearly I (and apparently everyone else who thought the same) was wrong..

    Good luck to Carlyle and good luck to Wilson with whatever he decides to take on next.

  10. Great post, Peter. Really well said. You covered the bases. It will be very interesting to see Carlyle here. Everyone will say they love him at first (players, I mean), as I mentioned above to Karina.

    We'll see if this is the perfect move- or one that Burke eventually regrets.


  11. Blah, I wrote out my entire comment on my iPhone and accidently clicked off the page before I sent the comment... so I quickly wrote it up on my computer this time... I apologize in advance for spelling/grammar errors.
    I'm just spit-balling here, but I really wonder about the timing of firing Wilson. I'm absolutely 100% for firing him, but he had ample opportunity to do so in the past, including two weeks ago when the Leafs were in a bad slide, but still somewhat in a playoff picture.

    As I mentioned, I fully embrace that he has fired Wilson but my mind began to change to different sub-topics and how the coaching change can relate to them. Mainly, I've been thinking about Mikhail Grabovsky. He isn't signed for next year and is set to be a UFA. I firmly believe he wants to play in Toronto and will re-sign once both parties agree. But what if the coaching change sways his decision. If Wilson really did become a players coach in Toronto, and Carlyle comes in as a strict disciplinarian, WHAT IF (I need to stress emphasis on how hypothetical this is) Grabo decided he doesn't want to continue to play under such a coach, and just walks. We would look pretty stupid for keeping him for the last 2 months of the season which offer virtually no hope for the playoffs.


  12. You raise a very interesting point, Steve...the timing question.

    I feel much the same. I wonder about the move now. Why not earlier?

    Was it really that Burke was loyal to the end? (Loyalty, though, is not having one guy in place before you've even fired the last fellow...but we'll never know the truth on that one.) Was he hoping things turned around? Or has he been talking with Anaheim ownership about Carlyle for a while?

    Clearly, the Carlyle move is not just a short-term thing, though it may provide a boost the rest of this season. Who knows, the team could go on a run, and Carlyle will be the genius he wasn't in Anaheim just a short while ago.

    But your point on Grabovski is an intriguing one. Money talks, of course. But we're likely kidding ourselves if we think the coach in a particular market doesn't have an impact on UFA decisions or players re-signing with their team.

    I'll remember your post come summertime, Steve. Thanks.

  13. Yeah, we'll have to see how this one ends. Lets hope I'm completely over-analysing the situation.

    Then again, I can definitely imagine someone offering Grabovski more in an open market than Burke does. If Toronto's offer for Grabo is 5 million over 4 years, I can definitely see a more desperate team throw 6 million at him.

    Maybe one of the reasons he liked Toronto (and would sign for less than other would offer)was because he enjoyed playing for Ron Wilson.

    Bottom line is that I would've liked to see him under contract before this coaching decision was made... Lets hope for the best

  14. A bit late in the season, but interested to see what the team generates now, obviously.
    Many thanks to Wilson for his time- love him or hate him, he did his best night in and night out. I'm pretty sure he'll get snapped up rather quickly.
    One little note on his relationship with the media- this is a Toronto reporter's reaction one single hour after the announcement, before Carlyle has even had the chance to talk to the team-
    "@Dave Feschuk ‏ @dfeschuk
    Good start to the Carlyle-media relationship. Gets out of limo and blows by 3 reporters without a word."
    There is just nothing more to say.

  15. I'm not sure what to expect from Carlyle. I realize Wilson had to go, I have been calling for just that for a while but why the 4 year contract right off the bat? Why do the Leafs always recycle guys? Carlyle has a good track record but it did not end well in Anahiem.

    To me the way to go would was to have let Gordon finish the year as interm guy. Then in the summer you can go and find the absolute right guy for the job. I look around the league and see guys in thier first year having succes. Why handcuff yourself to Carlye right away? It's not like a bunch of teams were going to fire thier coaches until the end of the year so why the big rush?
    It reminds me of Toskala, trade for the guy and then give him a big new contract right away. Look I could be wrong and Carlyle might be the absolute right guy, but it seems to me that there are a bunch guys in that locker room that need thier confidence repaired. Is bringing in a retread hard ass coach the way to do that? It seems to me that Burke can not think "outside the box" as it were. He's desperate so keeps going back to the well hoping there is more water, but hope isn't a plan and I'm not sure Burke has anything else.

  16. I don't think you're over-analyzing, Steve. We may end up being "wrong" when we aim to assess a particular decision or situation, but there's no questions there are sub-texts to all these things. This decision will impact a lot of people- Lupul, for example. Will Komisarek play more? If so, who sits?

    Grabovski is certainly part ofd this story line. Where does Kulemin now fit? Carlyle will have "loyalty" to no one- except to trying to win.

    So you have every reason to try to read the situation- because there are a lot of ways this can go, not just the rest of this season but next year and beyond re personnel, team harmony, etc...

  17. Agree on Wilson, KidK. He tried to win, did all he could. Good coach. I'll even venture to say (just my view) that he did his worst job ever in his career here, in part because he was under Burke's thumb. Wilson is at his best when he is an independent, and here, for some reason, he seemed subservient and "under" Burke, almost dependant on him for his future.

    All coaches are, I realize, but it never seemed to matter to Wilson before. He was a good enough coach not to be worried about that stuff.

    If he coaches again, he'll do better elsewhere, I believe.

  18. Carlyle blowing past reporters...I saw another reporter (you probably did, too) Tweet the same thing. Interesting, but it may be that Carlyle wanted to, as I said above, respect Wilson's departure and not say anything tonight.

    All that said, you gotta love this market. It's never, ever dull.....

  19. I like every word of your post, Willbur.

    I'm with you. Carlyle may be the absolute right guy, for this season and for the years to come.

    But here's a "prediction", if you will: everyone will love Carlyle (of course) in the short-term. His tough-ass thing will be in the background while he publicly (and maybe even privately) builds guys up. But eventually, people come back to who they really are. And he'll be demanding. Maybe we need that, but there is not only one "way" to coach, or achieve success.

    We all understand that no coach is the right fit for everybody on a 23-man roster. But I have to believe that Carlyle will not be a good match for some of the guys, not that that is any revelation.

    As for a 4-year contract, Burke is spending somebody else's money. (Just proves this contract has been negotiated for a don't make these things happen overnight...)

    If it doesn't work out, they just bring in the next guy. Money is no object in this market, it seems. Just raise ticket prices.

    These guys won a Cup in Anaheim. Well, they won because they had lots of grit (which this roster doesn't have) and they had a hot goalie (Giguere) and Niedermayer and Pronger.

    Do we have those guys here? Will we in two years?

    Anyway, for me, it's "you better win" time. And next year, they better be good. Listening to more BS from the GM doesn't interest me.

  20. Well, I never like to see anyone lose their job, and I think Wilson has been saddled with a so-so team, a team that's playing pretty much to its level, sad to say. That's on Burke.
    Having said that, and as I seem to be saying a lot these days, pro hockey is about winning, and Wilson wasn't able to get the team to play even at a .500 level this month. I believe we're playing at .088 or something, so that's pretty much a ticket out of Leafland.
    I don't care about a coach's relationship with the media - I think the media does, and makes a big fuss about it, but they're not the ones responsible for results on the ice. And that's what I want to see - results!
    So if Carlyle can make it happen, he can blow the press off all he likes, for all I care. But if he doesn't, and we continue to fumble our way out of the playoffs again, the thought that he's in for a possible 3 year stint just doesn't feel right to me. What about his history with Lupul? What about the player changes he's going to want, leading to yet another year or two of "rebuilding"? And then Burke will be gone, and we'll be back on the carousel again.
    This has become a dispiriting year - more so than usual. I'd really hoped that we'd see Dallas Eakins up with the Leafs, and maybe he'll make it as an assistant coach next year. Tomorrow will be an interesting game - but the ones we play in 10 days or so will tell the tale.

  21. Well pout and to the point as always, Gerund O'.

    The length of Carlyle's contract is certainly interesting, but GM's like Burke make these decisions all the time, it seems. Heck, he had just extended Wilson, so MLSE will be paying two guys this season and next . (Unless Anaheim is still picking up Carlyle's tab, which I wouldn't have agreed to, if I were in their shoes...)

    I'm guessing Eakins moves up next season to the Leafs, as Zettler is already out. But Carlyle will want his own guys, too, I assume.

    I'm of the view that this is on Burke more than any coach. He picked the team. And as much as we all like the youth, speed and the "promise" they often show, as you say, Gerund, it means precious little if you don't win often enough...

  22. No depth at center, almost no high end on d,(Gardiner has played only one good year so well if he stays at the level or do other teams learn to neutralize him), Our captain Phanuef has been caught flatfooted repeatedly. Lackluster top 6, no true number 1 in net, or in the minors. Caryle has a lot to overcome.

    Probably worst of all, the UFA market this summer is not deep, nor does it have a top center.

    Montreal, Buffalo, Washington, Tampa all had poor years, were still worse in the standings then most of them with very good luck when it comes to injuries.

    Toronto will be struggling for 8th next year mark my words, the coaching change will not dramatically alter our chances.

  23. I haven't been as close a Leafs spectator as you, Michael, so I take your opinion pretty seriously on these matters. When you say you're getting tired of Burke's bluster, it usually makes me reassess my opinion of the guy.

    I've always liked him for what he preached as a GM, especially when he would talk about character on the team (I remember he once said he didn't want players that didn't have interest in being a strong member of the community - stuff like that). I think he's done a good job of bringing more talent to a team where there was initially little, and I do believe he made the right decision at the deadline re: standing pat. Nothing short of a top-tier goalie (unavailable) was going to turn things around.

    I'm rehashing what I've said before as a (short-story-long, my apologies) leadup to this point: regardless of my feelings about the guy, I think you're bang on when you say next year is his contract year, essentially. Win and you're in. I like to think the absolute minimum is 2nd round of the playoffs, though knowing MLSE management even 1st round-and-out might get him re-signed. I think Carlyle was a good move and it was good for Burke to finally realize loyalty has its breaking point. I wouldn't expect him to say it publicly, but that's what happened here.

  24. Carlyle just feels like the right fit for me. Maybe not with the current roster of players, but for our team, a defense first approach is long overdue. I could be totally wrong, but this feels like a better hiring then Ron Wilson's felt.

  25. Appreciate your commenting on this one, Anon. Like you, I'm still stuck on the fact that- in an Eastern Conference where teams are really struggling after the top two teams, and the Leafs have been so healthy- they haven't been able to create distance between themselves and other beatable teams. Thanks.

  26. sense, Steve, is that Burke will be here for a long time. (Colangelo was a boy wonder, and he's still around on the basketball side, despite doing an awful job...). I don't think MLSE will fire him, even if the team continued to struggle next season. They made such a big deal about bringing in him as a saviour, he "won a Cup"- he's likely here forever.

    That said, I'm mostly speaking from a personal fan and overall observation perspective. He's a sharp hockey guy, and that's most important, of course. He has done some positive things since his arrival. I just wish there was less emphasis on "me", "my" and "I" from him, but that doesn't seem to trouble a lot of other people.

    I appreciate what he does for the troops and his desire to see his players involved in the community- all good things. That said, less ego would be nice, and beneficial to the team, in my view.

    As for Carlyle, I think he may well be a good fit here. We'll see. But one way or another, the team needs to win next season- a lot, including in the playoffs.

  27. LeafluvrCC ....I do agree. The real benefit (if it works as we hope) should come next season and beyond.