Look, I’ll be the first to question the true impact of a coach in any sport. Fact is, your team is only as good as the players on it and those players shouldn’t require a good coach to play hard, nor do they need a bad coach to coast if they should be so inclined.
But something had to be done – and fast – for the free-falling Leafs and their 1-9-1 mark over the past 11 games. Without a personnel shakeup making itself readily available in advance of the trade deadline and following an embarrassing dud at home against Florida, a coaching change was the logical way to go.
It was Ron Wilson’s time. That much was made clear from his palms-to-the-sky reaction after Tuesday’s loss as if to say ‘I have no answers’, not to mention the ‘Fire Wilson’ chants that rang through the ACC that same night (interestingly, Brian Burke acknowledged that he didn’t want to put his long-time friend through that same environment again). In spite of the way things seemed back in December, when Wilson was rewarded for his leadership of the then-in-the-playoffs Leafs with a contract extension (although even then it elicited some raised eyebrows), something clearly wasn’t working.
Even if it’s never fun to see a man publicly terminated (except maybe to some of the ACC faithful), it’s hard to find any dispute in the Wilson firing. The more curious aspect of the coaching moves came in Burke’s immediate hiring of another old friend, former Ducks coach Randy Carlyle.
It’s easy to see things from Burke’s viewpoint. These Leafs are just five points (albeit with three other teams ahead of them) out of a playoff spot and still have time (18 games) to right the ship. In Carlyle, they have a Stanley Cup winner and a coach more inclined to motivate than Wilson ever was.
But look beyond the current playoff race and questions regarding the hiring process mount. What happens if Toronto doesn’t make the playoffs? The blame shouldn’t (and probably won’t) lie with Carlyle, who will have barely had a chance to get to know his players, let alone implement his philosophies and coaching methods. However, he will go into the off-season without any ability to sell a culture change, or offering any optimism that – maybe, just maybe – things will be different with him behind the bench. Here’s a guy that was signed immediately to a three-year contract (the terms haven’t been disclosed, but his annual take is likely in the neighbourhood of the $1.7 million he earned in Anaheim) by a team that will already be paying a head coach’s salary to Wilson next season.
The change hasn’t exactly produced unbridled optimism in the locker room, either. Reports suggested that Joffrey Lupul was “distraught” to learn that the coach who had under-utilized him was coming on board.
I don’t know if the Carlyle hiring will pay off or not. My concern comes less with the choice made than with the process involved. Here, you have a team that has shown it can win as a collective unit, so the coaching change was needed moreso as a breath of fresh air than anything else.
If, say, assistant coach Scott Gordon, a former Islanders head coach, were to have stepped in as an interim, I feel that the short-term goal of giving the club a wake-up call could be achieved. From a long-term standpoint, it would have reaped many potential benefits. Leafs’ brass would have had other candidates that could have come to light and even had a chance to see how Dallas Eakins, a popular in-house candidate prior to Carlyle’s hiring, comports himself during the Marlies’ playoff run.
Here’s the reality: Carlyle has arrived as the head man for the foreseeable future, regardless of what myself, Lupul or any staunch Eakins’ supporters think. If he can rally the Leafs into the postseason mix, Burke’s hiring will look like a masterstroke. If he can’t, any goodwill that Burke and the franchise have built up in the last year or two is out the window.
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Written by Ben Fisher