By Stu Hackel
Will Brian Burke's late-season gambit pay off? Replacing his coach and long-time friend Ron Wilson with Randy Carlyle -- the same coaching hire that won their Anaheim Ducks the 2007 Stanley Cup -- was a move for the moment to be sure. But it is also a move for the future, assuming that Burke has one in Toronto. In this league, you never know.
Let's look short-term first. As Burke said in his press conference on Saturday morning in Montreal (audio), he's still trying to make the playoffs, which is why, he insisted, he made no moves at the trade deadline, because all he was offered for his players was draft picks, nothing to help him now.
A month ago, the Maple Leafs were looking pretty good as far as the playoffs were concerned. After a strong start and the inevitable leveling off, they were in the thick of things -- jockeying for position with the East's mid-pack teams, the Devils, Capitals and Penguins -- for one of the final three playoff spots.
Then the Leafs went into free-fall, for which Burke has no explanation. As of Friday, they had one OT win and one regulation tie in their past 11 games — just three of a possible 22 points. They'd sunk to the 11th spot, five points behind the eighth-place Jets. Toronto's goaltending tandem of James Reimer and Jonas Gustavsson had collapsed, the defense corps became mistake-prone and — with the exception of Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul — the forwards had gone dry.
The fans turned on Burke's former Providence College roommate, loudly chanting "Fire Wilson!" during his last game at Air Canada Centre, and some in the media joined in the chorus. Recognizing that the players had stopped responding to their coach, Burke explored hiring Marc Crawford or promoting one of the coaches in the Leafs' employ (Dallas Eakins, Scott Gordon, Greg Cronin and Rob Zetler), but decided on Carlyle. And so the plug was pulled on Wilson (one of the five coaches we thought might not last the season, and from that list only Brent Sutter remains).
Will the switch to Carlyle work? History says no.
There have been a handful of late-season NHL coaching changes in this century and only one really paid off: when Larry Robinson replaced Robbie Ftorek with eight games left in the 1999-2000 season. The Devils went 4-4-0, but won four playoff rounds and the Stanley Cup. More often, however, a change does little.
Ftorek was axed again, by Boston, with nine games left in 2003. Mike O'Connell went 3-3-3, then won only one playoff game.
In 2004, two teams made late-season changes. The St. Louis Blues fired Joel Quenneville with 21 games left in the season, went 10-7-4 under Mike Kitchen and won but a single playoff game.
The Coyotes turfed Bobby Francis with 20 games left in 2004, replacing him with Rick Bowness, who won only two of those games and, as you'd imagine, missed the playoffs.
In 2006, the Kings dismissed Andy Murray with 12 games left in the season and John Torchetti took over. They went 5-7 down the stretch and didn't qualify for the postseason.
In 2007, Devils GM Lou Lamoriello shocked the NHL by relieving Claude Julien with three games remaining, saying he didn't think Julien had the team prepared for the playoffs. The Devils were in first place in the Atlantic Division at the time and Lamoriello guided them to a 2-0-1 finish and second overall in the East. They won their first round over Tampa Bay, but were eliminated by Ottawa, earlier than most observers expected, in five second-round games.
In 2008, Senators GM Bryan Murray dumped John Paddock with 18 games left, took over himself, went 7-9-2 and saw his team swept in the first round.
Just making the playoffs after not being invited to the party since 2004 would be a victory of sorts for the Leafs, even though Burke says his goal is to win the Stanley Cup. But clearly, a history of improvement doesn't follow these late-season changes. Perhaps the Leafs have a late spurt in them, although their 2-1 slump-halting win over the anemic Canadiens in Carlyle's debut revealed little more than another indictment of Montreal's play and was not an indication that the Leafs are actually rebounding. They face Boston on Tuesday in what should be a more serious test.
So what does Carlyle bring to the Leafs that Wilson did not? Well, his teams play a different sort of game. Wilson liked a free-flowing offensive club, four lines that get roughly equal ice time and play with tempo. Carlyle's approach is not to roll his lines, but to match them against the opposition's. He's not big on his defensemen joining the rush. He likes to have two lines of scoring forwards, a strong checking line that he'll insist gets on against opponents' best forwards (and. apart from David Steckel, his current roster may not have that element), and an energy line of fourth-liners who won't see the ice very much.
(For some reason, however, when Carlyle was fired as Anaheim's coach in December, Scotty Bowman mentioned to me that Carlyle had changed his approach. “Carlyle, I don’t understand," he said. "He was a big line matcher. He always had a defensive line. The year they won the Cup (2007), it was Sami Pahlsson, Travis Moen and Robbie Niedermayer. He changed on the fly (to get them out against their opponent’s best forwards) and they played a very disciplined game.” But those three players were gone, the Ducks defense corps wasn't close to what it had been, and Carlyle had taken a different approach, playing his best forwards in situations where he previously used checkers.
“I’ve been watching them the last month and a half,” Bowman continued. “The goalie wasn’t what he was, but their defense corps is horrible. And Perry, Getzlaf, and Ryan, they weren’t good in their own end. I know [Carlyle] didn’t have a checking line anymore. You know when you get star players, you can’t ever get them thinking that you want them to fail. You got to make them believe you’re always in their corner, you’re always trying to insulate them. I don’t know what he was doing.”)
Another change that Carlyle will bring to Toronto is a better command of the players' attention. If the Leafs did, in fact, tune out Wilson, as Burke believes, they now have a different voice -- and it's not a pleasant one.
"I like coaches who are hard on players," Burke said on Saturday. "Randy is demanding on players." That he is, and if the Leafs had enough of Wilson’s abrasiveness and sarcasm, they may want him back after dealing with Carlyle. On TSN Friday night, Keith Jones and former Leafs coach Paul Maurice both praised the move (video). Jones liked that Carlyle demands discipline and hard work. “This is a tough, hard-nosed hockey coach that knows how to win,” he said.
On Sunday, after their victory in Montreal, Carlyle put the Leafs through a very tough practice. His contention, which he also noted in his introductory press conference, was that the Leafs weren't using their best asset, team speed, and Sunday's workout was ostensibly designed to get them into better game shape. An unnamed Leafs employee told Dave Feschuk of The Toronto Star that the high-paced 85-minute practice (which ended with a 20-minute bag skate that had some Leafs occasionally doubled over) was something that Wilson hardly ever inflicted on his club, even when it deserved it.
But the real lesson in that torture may be found in the words of Leafs forward Joey Crabb, who said afterward, “I don’t know what happens if we lose.” New assistant coach Dave Farrish, a longtime Carlyle cohort, noted, “That’s a normal practice for the hockey clubs we’ve coached in the past. There’s some things we need to work on.” Conditioning? Perhaps. Discipline, too.
A third change from Wilson will likely be that Carlyle requires the Leafs be more physical, which is also what Burke prefers. Burke may have acceded to Wilson's more skilled approach to the game, but as the GM acknowledged on Saturday, "If there's one philosophical commitment that Randy and I share, it's I like a rough team. If you can point to one thing where Ron and I were on a different page slightly, it would be that I like it a little rougher than Ron does."
Could this eventually signal the return of tough guys Jay Rosehill and Colton Orr from the AHL Marlies, despite their obvious shortcomings as NHL players? Who knows what this all means for the current Toronto roster, restricted in movement after last Monday's trade deadline.
And that leads to the long-term. Some in the media are already hoping to deny the future to Burke -- and he absorbed a full-on assault from Don Cherry on Hockey Night in Canada during Saturday's Coach's Corner segment (video). That nasty screed was based largely on the irrationality of nationalism. "Irrational," as Cathal Kelly of The Toronto Star points out, "is Don Cherry's wheelhouse."
How much the media will have to say about it is questionable. The real decision will be made by the Leafs new ownership, and nothing can ever be certain with new ownership.
But let's assume that Burke survives as GM. As he said on Saturday, changing coaches now not only is an attempt to "salvage the season," it's also for next season. "It saves us a month in the fall of a new coach coming in and putting in his systems and getting to know the players," Burke said. "And if we're going to miss, we're going to miss with a coach that gives us a better chance next fall....I don't want to have a new coach the first day of training camp."
It also means that Burke, who made deals to get Wilson-type players in the past, will now look to acquire players that fit the way Carlyle coaches. This may be a very different Maple Leafs roster next fall, with more role players and guys who are more defensive-oriented, more combative and belligerent.
And you have to wonder -- in light of the way the Bruins won the Cup last spring, and the roster changes the Canucks went through at the deadline, as well as the success of the Rangers this season with a disputatious lineup -- if the copycat NHL is more firmly moving away from the speed and skill model that characterized the post-lockout NHL and toward the Burke ideal of pugnacity, testosterone and truculence.
Regardless -- and whether or not the Maple Leafs make the playoffs this season -- at least Brian Burke now has his man.
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