Toronto Maple Leafs interim co-head coach Peter Horachek, right, explains a drill to Roman Polak (46) and Cody Franson during a practice at the team's practice facility in Toronto following the firing of head coach Randy Carlyle on Tuesday, Jan. 6, 2015.
AP Photo
January 07, 2015

TORONTO (AP) The whistle was in Peter Horachek's mouth, and players' eyes were on him when the Toronto Maple Leafs began the post-Randy Carlyle era.

There was little doubt who was in charge.

The Maple Leafs named Horachek interim head coach on Wednesday after 24 hours of uncertainty about the role he and Steve Spott would play in the aftermath of Carlyle's firing.

Horachek already has the experience of being the interim coach last season with the Florida Panthers, so it was natural to put him in the same position with Toronto.

Horachek and Spott, an assistant coach, will lead the team Wednesday night against the Washington Capitals.

''I think he did an excellent job with the Panthers,'' said Capitals coach Barry Trotz, Horachek's longtime boss in Nashville. ''This is a great opportunity for him on an interim basis. There's no question that he's head-coach material.''

Maple Leafs general manager Dave Nonis pointed to inconsistency as the biggest reason for Carlyle's firing on Tuesday. Toronto is in eighth place in the Eastern Conference (21-16-3), with the Maple Leafs coming off a seven-game road trip that produced just two wins.

Trotz, who mentored Horachek on his staff with the Predators for 10 years, said he has always seen his protege as a head coach.

''He's knowledgeable and he's got good balance in terms of player relationships, systems, all that,'' Trotz said. ''He's disciplined, he demands accountability, but he can communicate. Some guys demand accountability and can't communicate. He demands accountability and he gets respect because he communicates.''

Carlyle was demanding, but one of his drawbacks was a communication disconnect with players. That is an old-school mentality that can work to a point, but also wears thin with players who want to know why they're sitting or getting less ice time.

Unlike Spott, who is a popular players' coach, Horachek isn't a polar opposite of Carlyle. The 54-year-old Horachek is more of a hybrid.

''You have to make them feel like it's OK to talk to them,'' Horachek said. ''My door is open, they can come in and have their opinions, I can tell them what's going on. I can (give) them an opportunity to say what they want.

''They're not feeling like my thumb is on top of them, they're feeling like we're in this together.''

Horachek went 26-36-4 last season with the Panthers after replacing Kevin Dineen. Before entering the NHL on Trotz's staff, Horachek was an accomplished coach in the minor leagues.

He led teams to the playoffs in the Colonial Hockey League, International Hockey League, East Coast Hockey League and American Hockey League. Horachek's Orlando Solar Bears won the IHL title in 2001.

Maple Leafs star forward Phil Kessel acknowledged that his relationship with Carlyle wasn't always great, but he didn't celebrate the coach's dismissal.

''It was fine,'' Kessel said. ''I think every relationship has its ups and downs. Obviously, I'm not excited to see him go or anything like that. I'm disappointed because it's a reflection on us as a group that we didn't get it done.''

Horachek accepted some of that responsibility, too.

''Nobody's happy when this happens. When a coach gets removed it's a part of our fraternity,'' Horachek said. ''I'm not happy about it. Though it's given me an opportunity, it's still not a happy day for everybody.''

This summer, team president Brendan Shanahan and the Maple Leafs could have a broad list of experienced coaches to choose from, including Mike Babcock, Dan Bylsma, Pete DeBoer and perhaps Todd McLellan.

Team executives, who surely are already looking toward the future, watched Wednesday's morning skate with a keen eye.

Horachek has his focus squarely on the here and now.

''We've got half a season and we have to make sure we're going to do something positive with that,'' he said. ''I'm not worried about what they're going to do or what they're going to say. When it's time, if they feel like it's warranted, they're going to come to me and say, `OK that's what's happening.'

''Until that time I can only worry about worrying about preparing players, making sure they're feeling that they're in the best light and the best opportunities to play their best game.''

The Maple Leafs also announced forward Carter Ashton has been assigned to their AHL affiliate. The 23-year-old Ashton didn't have a point in seven games with the Maple Leafs this season.

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