Burke, Carlyle hope change will shake Leafs from funk
MONTREAL - After two "brutal" days, Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke informed his good friend Ron Wilson on Friday night that he was no longer fit to coach his hockey team.
One of the primary reasons Burke listed Saturday for replacing Wilson with his former coach in Anaheim Randy Carlyle was the reaction of the Maple Leafs fans, who chanted loudly at the Air Canada Center for Wilson to be fired Tuesday night during a 5-3 loss to the Florida Panthers.
Three days later, the fans got their wish.
"After the last home game, I felt it would be cruel and unusual punishment to let Ron coach another home game," Burke told a packed press conference at Bell Centre in Montreal, site of Toronto's game Saturday night against the Montreal Canadiens (7 p.m. ET, NHLN-US, CBC). "I wasn't going to put Ron through that again."
Burke said he looked hard at his former coach in Vancouver, Marc Crawford, now a TSN analyst, for the job, as well as several internal candidates -- Toronto Marlies head coach Dallas Eakins and Maple Leafs assistant coaches Scott Gordon, Rob Zettler and Greg Cronin.
But ultimately, Carlyle had the disposition Burke wanted in a head coach.
"I don't like coaches that are warm and fuzzy," Burke said. "The game shouldn't be fun. I tell players all the time, the fun part of the game is winning."
Carlyle did just that for Burke in Anaheim, winning a Stanley Cup in 2007.
Carlyle said he was contacted Wednesday afternoon by Anaheim GM Bob Murray with the news Burke was interested in talking to him. Once he consulted with his family and got the green light from them, Carlyle said the decision was an easy one -- in spite of his history of having a prickly relationship with the media and now stepping into the biggest media pressure cooker in the NHL.
"To say a kid from Ontario gets a second opportunity to represent the Toronto Maple Leafs, I feel very fortunate," said Carlyle, who was drafted by the Maple Leafs in 1976 and played his first two years in the NHL with Toronto.
Carlyle met with his new players at the team hotel for an hour Friday night, and he said the impression he came away with was that the players' confidence is shattered after a 1-9-1 stretch that has left them five points outside the Stanley Cup Playoffs. He said rebuilding that swagger was his first priority.
"First and foremost they need to feel better about themselves," Carlyle said. "It's not that they've lost their skills. We just need to rekindle their spirits."
Carlyle will get his first opportunity to do that Saturday night against a Montreal Canadiens team that beat the Leafs 5-0 in Toronto on Feb. 11, a game that set in motion the current Leafs free fall.
"It's not about anything happening next week," Carlyle said. "It's about tonight."
Burke was quite clear that the timing of the move was not only predicated by the fans at Air Canada Centre, but also by the fact he finds himself in unfamiliar territory with the sudden loss of form from his team.
"I've never had a team fall off the cliff like this before," Burke said. "I'm bewildered by it. It's like someone hit me with a two-by-four."
Burke also said that Wilson is not the lone source of blame for the current situation.
"When a coach is fired, there's plenty of blame to go around," he said. "Yes, I accept a share of the blame for this, and the players do as well."
"After the last home game, I felt it would be cruel and unusual punishment to let Ron coach another home game. I wasn't going to put Ron through that again." --Brian Burke
Burke had said just prior to Monday's NHL Trade Deadline that he would explore the market for some goaltending help, but ultimately he did not bring in a goaltender or any other player to help Wilson right the Maple Leafs' ship. However, Burke said he was offered four first-round draft picks and fielded calls on 12 of his roster players prior to the 3 p.m. deadline on Monday , but he decided not to ship out any roster players.
"It's not just goaltending," he said. "In my mind, I think goaltending is bearing a disproportionate amount of blame for where we are."
The Leafs players were still a bit shocked at their morning skate Saturday, and two in particular who were given an opportunity by Wilson were very grateful.
Center Mikhail Grabovski was inserted into Wilson's top six immediately after his acquisition from the Canadiens, where he bounced in and out of the lineup and had an abrasive relationship with the coaching staff.
"I had a great time with him as coach, he gave me a chance to play a lot," Grabovski said. "It's hard."
Burke suggested that Wilson's message had become like white noise to the Leafs players, comparing it to someone who lives near an airport but no longer hears the planes taking off and landing because they've grown accustomed to it. Grabovski, however, didn't agree with that assessment.
"I always listened to the coach, but maybe other players did differently," he said. "But I don't think there were any players who didn't work hard on the ice with Wilson as coach. But something didn't work. It's not his fault, it's the fault of all the players."
The other player to get his first real shot in the NHL under Wilson was defenseman Luke Schenn, who made the team as an 18-year-old and was allowed to fight through the growing pains as a rookie.
"He showed a ton of confidence in me and gave me a great opportunity at a young age," Schenn said. "It's tough to see him go."
While Schenn has sympathy for Wilson having to endure an arena full of fans calling for his job, he also said that is part of the job description when you're employed by the Maple Leafs.
"When you're coaching the team, you're obviously an easy target if you want to single one guy out," Schenn said. "Ron was unfortunately in that position and you feel bad for him. It's something that no one should go through to have 20,000 people chanting for you to get fired. But that's life in Toronto. When things aren't going well it's not the easiest place to play or coach ... sooner or later most guys have a shelf life in Toronto."
In joining the Leafs, Carlyle was allowed to bring one of his assistants from Anaheim into the fold. So, Dave Farrish will be joining the staff. Zettler, an assistant on Wilson's staff, will be re-assigned, Burke said.