Last night, Brian Burke did what many said he never would by axing long time friend Ron Wilson, ending his coaching tenure after what was approaching four straight seasons of playoff-less hockey in Toronto. Not surprising in the least given the recent run of results, but it’s interesting to think back to the situation just a month ago. Back on February 1st, 99% of knowledgeable fans and pundits were figuring Wilson would finish out the 2011-12 season at a minimum. A eleven game stretch of dismal results (1-9-1) changed all that.
The cause of the slump and Wilson’s role in it is tough to gauge. It seemed the goaltending went south, while the team continued to struggle defensively, and in the process the confidence of his young team disappeared and couldn’t be recovered before the skid killed the season. The ability to get more out of less is what a good coach brings to the table, and Wilson seemed to have that for the first half of the season before rapidly losing it once the need came to adjust. Was the failure to adjust Wilson’s own stubbornness or was he handcuffed by the limitations of the roster? To an extent a coach fired by his failing team is always the casualty of problems out of his control, and soon enough we’ll begin to see to what extent that was true of Wilson. Either way, the need for change became too strong to ignore as the same old recurring problems and a fourth straight season out of the playoffs forced Burke into a decision he never wanted to make.
One last word on Ron Wilson
What will be the lasting legacy of the 36th coach in Leafs history? The teams under Wilson could always score, and had more than their fair share of pleasantly surprising offensive players develop, sometimes overnight, under his watch. His fatal flaw will go down as his inability to get his groups to buy into an effective system of team defense. Of course, it will always be a debate as to what extent Brian Burke’s inability to get him a true number one goaltender, at least one for more than the 30 games he received from 2010-11 version of James Reimer, limited Wilson’s ability to shore up the defensive end of the rink.
In his four years of service, Wilson always seemed like a proud member of the Blue and White through and through, and for that we thank him.
Bio & Background – Randy Carlyle, the 37th coach in Leafs history
The most impressive part about Carlyle is of course that he’s a proven winner, the first Leafs coach since Punch Imlach to adorn a ring on his finger. Carlyle spent six seasons (1996—2001 & 2004—2005) as head coach of the Manitoba Moose (both in the International and American Hockey Leagues), earning a career mark of 222—159—52—7 with the franchise. He had the additional duties of General Manager of the Moose from 1996—2000, adding the title of club President for the 2001—2002 season. He helped the Moose to a 47—21—14 record for 108 points in 1998—99, for which he was named the IHL’s General Manager of the Year. During the 2006-07 season, Carlyle coached the Ducks to the best regular season in franchise history, setting a record for points in a season at 110 and grabbing the team’s first division title. That season, Carlyle led the franchise to its first ever Stanley Cup victory.
Between the NHL and AHL, Carlyle has never coached a losing season, and has only missed the playoffs once in his career as an NHL coach. Of course, many will be quick to reference that his Ducks got off to a nighmare start this season, leading to his ultimate firing, and they would be right – most agreed Carlyle lost the dressing room in Anaheim this season. In his defense, unless you’re a coach in Detroit, in the modern game it’s tough to stay with a team through thick and thin for six-plus seasons and not have them tune you out at one point. When it isn’t clicking and the need for change arises, the quickest and easiest move is almost always changing the voice behind the bench.
Two interesting tidbits about the new coach – On February 8, 2008, with the Ducks 2—1 win over the New Jersey Devils, Ducks coach Randy Carlyle earned his 121st victory, passing non other than Ron Wilson for the franchise record. He was also drafted by the Maple Leafs, 30thoverall in 1976.
Our new coach is a former Norris Trophy winner whose teams in Anaheim were top ten in goals against in four of his six seasons. The Carlyle hire combined with the reassigning of defensive coach Rob Zettler should eliminate the “fronting system” that we saw all too much of this season. This, of course, referring to the decision to “front” with your stick and body in the passing and shooting lanes, as opposed to battling with a forward for positioning in front of the net, essentially forfeiting the goal mouth to the attackers. I think it’s safe to say this system strapped the goat horns on the Leafs‘ defencemen and goaltenders far too often.
Defensive defencemen with limited mobility have almost always struggled under Ron Wilson during his tenure, with Mike Komisarek, Francois Beauchemin, and Luke Schenn being the main examples. Beauchemin is an interesting case in particular. He made his name in the league under Carlyle, struggled under Wilson, and returned to Carlyle’s team and found his niche again. Hopefully, we see Carlyle’s former Norris Trophy winner expertise show through with the struggling Schenn. Conversely, it will be interesting to see how he manages the likes of Jake Gardiner, who had been given a pretty loose leash by Wilson.
The overall hope will be that the Leafs have found a coach that can help bring a measure of defensive accountability, responsibility and structure to the run and gun system.
On another note, one of my long standing questions about the Burke-Wilson marriage surrounded just how much they were on the same page when it came to team toughness. Certainly this season it seemed to be more of a Wilson team than a Burke team in this regard. The Carlyle teams under Burke in Anaheim matched its leaders’ hard nosed character and it will be interesting to see how much of a personnel change we’re going to see in this direction. Their team together in Anaheim played with a heavily reliance on a dump and chase, forechecking, gritty style of hockey. This Leafs team does none of that well. It was when Anaheim shifted into becoming a bit smaller, younger, faster of an outfit that Carlyle’s game plan seemed to lose its efficacy. That’s exactly what this Leafs team is, and that’s a little it concerning.
One of Carlyle’s first orders of business, I’m sure, is to work on repairing his relationship with Joffrey Lupul. Lupul declined comment yesterday when asked for his thoughts on the hire and the history between the two. The background goes something like this; after coming back from his injury – a long, complicated and arduous return to health and game shape – Lupul’s only shot at a top six role with Carlyle’s club was on the left wing. Carlyle told Lupul he was not cut out to play left wing in the National Hockey League. Lupul felt personally affronted, perceiving it as a lack of belief in his game on the part of Carlyle, as he struggled find his game playing third line minutes. This came out in the media once he began proving he could, indeed, play left wing in the NHL, and not just at an acceptable top six level – he’s been a top five player at his position this season.
I’m sure Lupul was one member of the Leaf dressing room sad to see Wilson go, and without a doubt Joffrey thanked Wilson for the opportunity and belief the coach showed in the 28-year-old immediately upon his arrival. It’s something Leafs Nation should appreciate about Wilson, too. He had a similar effect on MacArthur and Grabovski. The former was player still looking for employment as of late August, 2010, and the latter who was cast aside by his former organization in Montreal. He positioned these players to succeed and believed in what they could do.
As for Lupul, Carlyle will probably happily admit to have been wrong about him and hopefully it’s something a simple chat can resolve. If Darcy Tucker and Mike Peca can play on the same team, I think these two can forget the history and look at this as a new start. I’d imagine a coach is happy to have a player play well and prove them wrong provided the individual is still on his team and helping him win hockey games.
This Season and Beyond
The decision to directly transition to the Randy Carlyle era, as opposed to promoting a coach within the organization on an interim basis and playing the field in the summer, signaled the club is regarding the remainder of the season with as much seriousness as future seasons. Reports suggest Carlyle will have a three-year contract initiating next season, meaning he is also the long term solution behind the bench.
The fact of the matter is that Burke, for better or worse, often goes with what’s familiar, and Carlyle was probably going to be the successor whether it be now or in the summer. I like the decision to get a head start on the inevitable; we need to see how the team performs and how particular players respond to a new voice in order to make proper assessments on what pieces can and cannot be apart of a winning combination in Toronto going forward. It would’ve been a shame if Luke Schenn was peddled for peanuts, relative to his trade value two or three years ago, at the trade deadline before we saw what is he is capable of under a new head coach. Making this move now gives a chance to get at least an 18-game glimpse of how certain players react to Carlyle, particularly Reimer and Gustavsson once a new defensive look is installed.
Only time will tell us if this is a Ron Wilson retread or if the Leafs have the coach that will get this group to buy into an effective system of team defense. What Burke isn’t changing is coaching style; at 55, Carlyle is also an elder statesman of the league, and he’s also not a player’s coach. Carlyle’s hardnosed, business-like, and making enemies in the media already.
I wouldn’t expect Carlyle to come in and work a miracle this season. Maybe he gets a little more out of this group down the stretch, but many of flaws that existed before Wilson got fired still remain. The team is too soft and small up front, especially for Carlyle and Burke’s liking, and it lacks a number one goaltender, and those needs cannot be addressed until the off season. The Leafs’ continued one-track reliance on their speed game, a strategy that’s been thwarted with increasing ease, is probably not going to go away until Carlyle has the horses to make it possible.
A fresh voice behind the bench does mean the pressure to improve in the final month has been shifted a little more onto Burke, and a lot more onto the players’ shoulders. The response from certain individuals will go a long way in determining if they’re here to stay or if they’re following Wilson out the door this off season.