TORONTO – Even Brian Burke had seen enough.
After watching his Toronto Maple Leafs crash out of playoff position and listening to fans calling for coach Ron Wilson’s job, the general manager finally decided to fire his college roommate.
“This was not an easy decision for me to make,” Burke said in a statement.
With 18 games left in the Leafs season, Randy Carlyle has been called on to replace Wilson.
Carlyle also enjoys a happy past with Burke, having brought him a Stanley Cup with the Anaheim Ducks in 2007.
Burke remained loyal to Wilson until the end—continuing to defend the coach after fans chanted “FI-RE WIL-SON!” at Air Canada Centre to conclude a recent homestand. But eventually he was forced to move in another direction.
“The talk in town doesn’t really matter,” Wilson had said earlier Friday. “We’ve got a job to do. We’ve got to try to rectify some things and get points on the board.
“That’s where the focus is.”
He won’t have the chance to see the job through. Starting with Saturday’s game in Montreal, Carlyle will be tasked with getting the Leafs into the post-season for the first time since 2004.
As recently as late January, the Leafs appeared to be well on their way to ending that long playoff drought. But a 1-9-1 skid starting Feb. 7 sent them spiralling down the standings to 12th place, five points out of a playoff spot, and sealed Wilson’s fate.
Burke’s relationship with Carlyle goes back to 2005 when Burke hired him as coach in Anaheim.
In the most successful season in Ducks history, and with Burke at the helm, Carlyle guided the team to their first-ever Stanley Cup.
The 55-year-old Carlyle spent seven seasons as coach in Anaheim and led the team to five playoff appearances. Only Detroit’s Mike Babcock has more playoff wins than Carlyle’s 36 since 2005-06.
Carlyle was fired by the Ducks in December after a rocky start to the season.
“Although it’s always tough to see a coaching change, we are certainly happy for Randy,” said Anaheim GM Bob Murray in a statement. “It was simply a matter of time before he had another opportunity to be a head coach in this league. He’s a great coach, and we wish him the best in Toronto.”
Carlyle’s hiring also pleased some of his former players.
“That’s great,” Anaheim centre Ryan Getzlaf said. “We don’t want to see anybody get fired and that means that we kind of let him down. I’m excited for him and wish him all the best.”
Ducks right wing Bobby Ryan added: “It seems like it’s the Ducks of the East over there.”
Wilson can relate—the fourth stop in his long NHL coaching career was arguably the toughest. Tasked with getting the Leafs back into the playoffs in June 2008, the best he could manage was a 10th-place finish in the Eastern Conference last season.
Wilson compiled a 130-135-45 record with Toronto and leaves the team sitting fourth on the NHL’s all-time list for games coached.
Otherwise, it was far from a milestone season. In their last 11 games, the Leafs allowed 45 goals, an average of more than four per game.
It was clear last summer that Wilson’s hold on the job was weakening. In June, Burke fired assistants Keith Acton and Tim Hunter—a long-time Wilson ally—and replaced them with Greg Cronin and Scott Gordon, who held past head coaching experience with the New York Islanders.
Even though Wilson and Burke shared a long history dating back to their time at Providence College in Rhode Island, Wilson was hired for the job in 2008 by interim GM Cliff Fletcher.
He took a combative stance with the media right from the beginning—bringing his Canadian passport to the introductory press conference because he was sensitive to stories hailing him as the franchise’s first American coach. He also said “Bring it on” when asked about the scrutiny to come.
It was a rocky ride.
The 56-year-old signed a contract extension in December—announcing it on his Twitter feed Christmas morning—and will be paid through the end of next season. It remains to be seen whether he’ll make his way back to the NHL.
In 1,401 career games with Anaheim, Washington, San Jose and Toronto, he has a 648-561-91 record with 101 ties.
The Leafs have 18 games to play, but need to get hot to avoid missing the playoffs for a seventh straight season.
They expected more this season, particularly after a strong first half.
“We had a real good chance of being a top-four team in the East at the all-star break and now we’re looking at having to put together a bunch of wins to get in the playoffs,” said forward Joffrey Lupul, who played for Carlyle in Anaheim. “That’s frustrating.”
Burke kept his team intact at Monday’s trade deadline, believing it can win. They have since lost two in a row.
A bad omen is that their recent slide has left them with exactly the same number of points (65) as they had on the same date a year ago, when they ended up finishing eight points out of the playoffs despite a late spurt of wins.
—With files from sports reporter Bill Beacon in Montreal and the Associated Press.