The history of the coaching change can be summarized, roughly, like this: bad cop followed by good cop, players' coach followed by a disciplinarian, yin followed by yang. Running a franchise is a little like life in that way. General managers, like the rest of us, invariably seem to want precisely what they don't have.
Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke is a different kind of GM, loud and principled and solid in his convictions. Unlike the other men in his position, he didn't necessarily want something different really, just a lot more of the same -- albeit with a different voice saying it a little more emphatically.
If the Leafs players ever chafed under the clever and sardonic Ron Wilson, well ... that was just the warm-up act. Three nights after the crowd at the Air Canada Centre chanted "Fire Wilson" -- a stunning display because usually the only time the swells in the platinum seats get exercised is if their Chablis has not been properly chilled -- Burke dismissed Wilson and hired Randy Carlyle, a grind-them-down-style coach who wore out his welcome in Anaheim early this season and was replaced by the light-stepping Bruce Boudreau.
Burke and Carlyle have a history. After passing on Carlyle as coach of Vancouver's minor league affiliate in Manitoba, Burke doubled back and picked him to lead the Ducks when the GM left the Canucks and moved to Anaheim. The Ducks won the Stanley Cup in 2007 with a team high on testosterone, pugnacity, truculence and all the other verities that formed the basic tenets of the Burke philosophy back then. Carlyle rode his players hard -- "Nine out of 10 dentists would agree," winger Dustin Penner replied when a reporter once inquired if it were true that he was Carlyle's favorite whipping boy -- but the Ducks showed a surfeit of spunk, not to mention defense. Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger anchored the blueline, there was a dynamic checking line centered by Sami Pahlsson and Jean-Sébastien Giguère supplied goaltending of the first rank. When a coach and GM win a Cup, they might not always walk together, in Flyers coach Fred Shero's memorable phrase, but they do keep each other on speed dial.
But Burke, a man whose loyalties are as oversized as his vocabulary and generosity, also had a history with Wilson. It dated to the mid-1970s when they were teammates at Providence College under coach Lou Lamoriello. There were personal ties, yes, but also there was professional admiration. Although Burke inherited Wilson in Toronto -- interim GM Cliff Fletcher actually had hired the coach in 2008 -- Burke, who ran the 2010 U.S. Olympic team, selected Wilson to coach in Vancouver. (Sure, it would have been awkward to hire another coach, say John Tortorella, with Wilson behind the bench of Burke's club team, but still ...) The reward was a silver medal and the restoration of USA Hockey as a serious player at the most elite level. Wilson, who also was behind the bench in 1996 when Team USA won the World Cup, might have been foundering with a scruffy Toronto team, but the Olympics reestablished his coaching bona fides -- if that were even necessary.
But Wilson, who had taken Washington to a Cup final and done quality work in San Jose despite some premature playoff exits, never could fix the Maple Leafs, a mostly truculent-free team with inconsistent goaltending -- the one position that Burke, with the exception of Giguère -- rarely has seemed to get a handle on. Toronto would annually make late charges after most of the pressure was off, teasing a laughably loyal fan base that has not witnessed a Stanley Cup parade since 1967. But the Leafs would fall short, missing the playoffs and winding up with a draft choice just low enough not to make a franchise-altering difference. Toronto has not qualified for the playoffs since 2004.
But the Leafs started promisingly last fall. When they played the defending Stanley Cup champions on Nov. 5, Toronto was in first place in the Eastern Conference and the Boston Bruins were 15th. Despite the stretches of scratchy play that followed, the Maple Leafs performed well enough that Burke gave Wilson, on the last year of his contract, an extension. Wilson tweeted his extra year on Christmas morning, which did not exactly endear him to Toronto reporters, with whom he had, at times, a prickly relationship. Burke would explain the added year as saying that when a man went into a lion cage, he needs both a whip and a chair.
As it turned out, he also needs a golden parachute.
Toronto seemed playoff-bound until slamming into a brick wall in February. The goaltending was poor -- neither Burke nor Wilson was hesitant in apportioning blame -- but the defensive lethargy surrounding the masked James Reimer and Jonas Gustafsson was gob-smacking. Earlier in the season, Wilson had touted captain Dion Phaneuf as the leading candidate for the Norris Trophy. But in recent weeks he had looked slow and, worse, soft. Toronto had simply become too easy to score against, a team utterly devoid of passion. And on some nights, a clue. There were no fixes at the trade deadline last Monday, which left Burke just one more card to play.
Before the Air Canada Centre mob got around to it, Wilson was being fired almost daily in the Toronto prints. The beleaguered coach who always had been bursting with ideas seemed to have run out of them. Like Carlyle in Anaheim, Wilson seemed to have passed his expiry date. The Leafs stumbled around the ice against Florida in Wilson's final home game, allowing a goal 13 seconds into the match because of a defensive gaffe. At least they showed some energy before falling in Chicago, 5-4, on Wednesday. Toronto had lost 10 of 11, drifting into 11th place when Burke made the decision to fire his coach rather than ride out the season, waiting and hoping for a wayward team to find itself.
There are 18 games left, starting with the woeful Canadiens in Montreal on Saturday. (Some Montreal fans have taken to wearing paper bags over their heads; at least they have not opted for plastic.) There is enough time for a late charge assuming Carlyle has the Leafs' undivided attention.
Wilson, like Carlyle, will be behind an NHL bench again. He is a good coach whose time simply ran out in Toronto.
Next on the clock? Burke.