Sports

Leafs fire Carlyle, send wake-up call to team

By Rob Longley, Toronto Sun

TORONTO - 

If Randy Carlyle’s message wasn’t getting through to the maddeningly inconsistent Maple Leaf players, perhaps the words of general manager Dave Nonis will.

When Nonis met the team prior to practice on Tuesday morning to announce that Carlyle was the latest and highest-profile body to be fired under the Brendan Shanahan regime, it could and should also be seen as the latest wake-up call.

“We expect our players understand right now what we need going forward,” Nonis said before a packed media conference at the MasterCard Centre. “It shouldn’t take anything more than what happened today for them to do it.”

If only it were that easy for a team that Carlyle guided through a wild and frustrating series of ups and downs during the parts of four seasons he was employed here.

There may not have been any tears shed for the latest hard-edged coach to be terminated, but if the players didn’t know it prior to Tuesday, they are well aware that no one is safe under the potentially ruthless watch of team president Shanahan, who has no strong ties to anyone on the roster.

“It’s on us now,” Leafs forward Daniel Winnik said. “You can’t have a stretch of 10-1-1 and then 2-7 or whatever the hell we are. You can’t go to being such a team that’s playing at the top of the league to a team that’s playing around the bottom.”

Though performances have been — in the words of Nonis — “trending” downward for several weeks, Carlyle still worked behind the bench of a team with a winning record and one clinging to an Eastern Conference playoff spot.

But the firing has been in the works for several weeks, dating back to the stretch Winnik referenced when the team was collecting points despite being out-played and out-shot on too many nights. Nonis handled the firing with a phone call to Carlyle on Monday night, but the decision ultimately went through Shanahan.

“It’s not about one game or one stretch,” Nonis said in reference to the five games in seven nights trip that provided just one win. “We felt that we had to make that change because of the direction this team is trending, that we need to move forward. It’s been too much of a roller coaster.

“This isn’t throwing in the towel. We feel that this team has a chance to do some good things and today was the first step in trying to push our team back in that direction.”

With Carlyle gone, his assistants Peter Horachek and Steve Spott will take over the interim duties behind the Leafs bench, beginning with Wednesday’s Air Canada Centre engagement with the Washington Capitals.
 

There is no clear succession plan in place, however, though sources say it is possible the team will hire an outside body, again on an interim basis, to finish the season.

That the wild ride is over for Carlyle may come as a relief for the Sudbury native and Stanley Cup winner from his tenure as Anaheim Ducks coach. The ups and downs of life behind the Leafs bench can be excruciating.

On the one hand, he led the team to its only playoff appearance in the past 10 seasons, though a thriller that ended with a heart-breaking Game 7 collapse. On the other, he’s seen as an old-school coach whose approach isn’t always embraced.

“I don’t want to get too much into that right now,” forward James van Riemsdyk said when asked if Carlyle could be difficult. “Everyone has different ways to go about how they want to get things done. Our job is to find the message and respond from there.”

In fairness, van Riemsdyk, who is on pace for a career best season, said that Carlyle was good for his own career, giving him power-play time and encouraging him to be a strong presence in front of the net. Defenceman Cody Franson said the same thing on Tuesday and to a man, the Leafs took ownership of their role in the firing.

But what else are they going to say publicly? It was a similar soundtrack following the March, 2012 firing of Ron Wilson, a move that paved the way for the ill-fated Carlyle era. In 188 games behind the Leafs bench the former Norris Trophy winner departs with a record of 91-78-19.

What’s next? The immediate task is to erase the horrible effort in Winnipeg on Saturday and take advantage of two home games before hitting the road for four more against opponents that on paper are much tougher than the Leafs faced on the 2-5 road run just completed.

“There’s a lot of things that run through everybody’s mind when you go through this,” Horachek said on Tuesday. “Your head coach was just relieved of his duties, what goes on now? What does this mean to me?

“Let’s just stick together and do the things that we need to be ready to play tomorrow night.”

With no players with complete no-movement clauses and no coach to be used as a scapegoat, Shanahan’s harshest evaluations may be yet to come.

“As tough as this is having another coach fired, it’s a wakeup call to our room,” Franson said. “We know that the domino effect is that we’re next if we can’t start figuring this out. We’ve got a group in this room that we like working together and that’s not easy to come by.”

In his time behind the Leafs bench, Carlyle compiled a record of 91 wins, 78 losses, and 19 overtime/shootout losses in 188 games. The 58-year-old holds a career NHL coaching record of 364 wins, 260 losses, and 80 overtime/shootout losses in 704 games between the Anaheim Ducks and Toronto.

Carlyle got the axe despite having his team clinging to a playoff spot with a record of 21-16-3, one point ahead of the Bruins for the second wildcard spot in the Eastern Conference.

The team returned from a brutal five-game, post-Christmas stretch on Sunday, the latter of those a blowout loss to the Winnipeg Jets. For much of that game, the team looked disinterested, but it concluded a stretch of five games in seven nights.

WILSON WAS NOT 'THRILLED'

When Ron Wilson was fired as Maple Leafs coach, then-general manager Brian Burke said the move was necessary because the team was like an 18-wheeler driving off a cliff.

On Tuesday, Wilson pushed the team’s leading player and others under the bus.

In an at-times scathing interview with TSN Radio, Randy Carlyle’s predecessor ripped into Phil Kessel for his streaky ways.

“You can’t rely on Phil,” said Wilson, who coached Kessel with the Leafs and Team USA at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.

“When he’s not playing well, he’s a hard guy to get on board and get on your side.

“He shows obvious signs of brilliance, but Phil’s problem — it’s pretty much the way he’s been through his career — he’s two weeks on and two weeks off. It’s just the way it is. He comes and goes and he gets emotional. He lets that affect his game and his relationship with other players.”

Wilson, who was fired in March 2012 and replaced by Carlyle, didn’t stop there, suggesting that the team has too many players that are difficult to coach.

“Some of the core players have failed under two or three coaches so it’s got to be the player’s fault,” Wilson said on TSN Radio’s Leafs Lunch. “You’d have to surmise that some of them might be uncoachable.

“You never change a leopard’s spots. You paint over some of those spots, but they’ll eventually shine through the paint and that’s just too bad.”

So would benching Kessel solve the problem?

“It would take pretty big balls to do that,” Wilson said.

KESSEL: 'YOU THINK IT'S MY FAULT'

He is the team’s leading scorer and one of the most offensively gifted players in the NHL.

But is Phil Kessel a difficult player to coach? It’s a suggestion that has been made by several prominent hockey people in the past and by Kessel’s former coach, Ron Wilson, as recently as Tuesday afternoon.

“I don’t think so, that’s a weird question for you to ask,” Kessel said when asked by the Toronto Star’s Dave Feschuk whether he is a tough player to coach.

Kessel immediately got his back up, challenging the reporter, before the Leafs’ public relations staff broke up the scrum that had caused a stir in the Leafs dressing room at their Etobicoke practice facility.

“You think it’s my fault (that Randy Carlyle was fired)?” Kessel said. “Is that what you’re saying? I don’t think so. I play. “

As he walked away, Kessel took a swipe at Feschuk, saying, “This guy’s an idiot, here.”

rob.longley@sunmedia.ca

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