MONTREAL – The Toronto Maple Leafs are counting on a coaching change to get them out of a tailspin and back on course for the NHL playoffs.
Randy Carlyle, who has replaced the fired Ron Wilson, will try to get them there.
“I sense the club is very tense,” Carlyle said at a news conference in the home of the arch-rival Montreal Canadiens, against whom he was to coach his first game for Toronto on Saturday night.
“The confidence level is at a low. My responsibility as head coach is to pick these guys up. To get them feeling better about themselves.”
Carlyle, 56, who coached the Anaheim Ducks to a Stanley Cup in 2007, took over a team that had dropped out of playoff position in the NHL Eastern Conference with a 29-28-7 record. Carlyle was fired by Anaheim on Nov. 30 in his seventh season with the Ducks.
The Leafs were 1-9-1 in their last 11 games when Wilson, general manager Brian Burke’s longtime friend and former college teammate, was sacked on Friday night.
Fans chanted “Fire Wilson” during a loss to the Florida Panthers at the end of a homestand this week and Burke said it would be “cruel and unusual punishment to make Ron coach another game at the Air Canada Centre.”
He also said it was clear the team had tuned Wilson out after four seasons behind the bench.
“It was time,” said Burke. “Every coach has a shelf life.
“I’ve never had a team fall off a cliff like this in my life. I’ve seen dips, slumps, rough patches, but this is akin to an 18-wheeler going off a cliff. I don’t know what happened. I’m bewildered by it. It’s like someone hit me with a two-by-four. I’ve never had this before where a team just plain, flat out goes into a free fall.”
But the general manager said he turned down offers at the Feb. 27 NHL trade deadline because he was confident the team was good enough to make the playoffs without making changes. He said bids were made on 12 of his players and a total of four first-rounders were offered, but he elected to stand pat.
“We felt this coach gives us a chance to salvage the season, and the way it was going, it wasn’t going to happen,” he said. “Also, this saves us a month in the fall of a new coach coming in and putting in a system and getting to know the players.
“If we’re going to miss (the playoffs), we’re going to miss with a coach that gives us a better chance next fall.”
He also said goaltenders James Reimer and Jonas Gustafsson have taken a “disproportionate and unfair” share of the blame for the team’s struggles.
Burke flew to Montreal to meet with Wilson in person, delivering the news Friday night.
He received permission from Anaheim on Wednesday to talk to Carlyle. The Leafs also looked at other candidates, including Marc Crawford, who coached for Burke in Vancouver, Toronto Marlies coach Dallas Eakins and Leafs assistant coaches Scott Gordon, Greg Cronin and Rob Zettler.
He preferred leaving Eakins with the AHL club to help give the team’s top prospects a chance to experience post-season hockey.
Burke reassigned Zettler to leave room for Carlyle to bring in an assistant of his choosing. That will be Dave Farrish, who works with defencemen. He was not on hand for Saturday’s game.
“We’re getting that done today,” he said.
Burke thanked fans for their support in a message sent to Leafs season-ticket holders.
“Our team’s performance of late has been disappointing,” Burke wrote. “Most importantly, we are disappointed for our passionate fans. Despite our team’s struggles, we remain optimistic with 18 games left in the season.
“. . . We are committed to our plan and long-term direction to bring a Stanley Cup Championship to Toronto.”
Carlyle met with the team for about an hour Friday.
“It was short,” winger Joffrey Lupul said. “He talked about changes from a system standpoint. He talked about a chance to make a first impression.
“Our identity’s not going to change. We’re still a skating-first team.”
Burke said he likes coaches that are demanding and tough on players, who clearly define each player’s role on the team and that like rough, physical hockey. He said Carlyle meets all three criteria.
“I don’t like coaches who are warm and fuzzy,” said Burke. “The game shouldn’t be fun.
“The fun part is winning. The game itself should be a difficult contest full of hard decisions and hard battles. Look at the coaches who are successful in this league. They aren’t warm and fuzzy guys.”
Carlyle put the team through an energetic 40-minute skate on Saturday morning to begin the process of getting to know the team and implementing changes in how they play.
“We have to find a way to re-energize the group,” said Carlyle. “It’s not that they’ve lost their skills.
“They have an opportunity now to show a new face, a good impression.”
He also made amends with Lupul, who played sparingly for him in Anaheim before being traded to Toronto after two injury-marred seasons in February, 2011. Lupul has blossomed into a first line winger this season.
“Lupul made a comment in Anaheim, saying he felt I didn’t use him correctly, and he was right,” said Carlyle. “I made a mistake in not putting Joffrey on left-wing in our top-six grouping.
“He came back from pretty dramatic back surgery. He had a number of infections. We at one point thought he’d never play again. That’s a mistake we made and I take responsibility for it. I’ve talked to him about it. It’s water under the bridge. He’s a top-six forward for the Toronto Maple Leafs.”
Defenceman Mike Komisarek acknowledged there was tension on the team and that all the players felt responsible for Wilson losing his job.
“It was tough the other night losing and having those chants,” he said. “We all know that Wilson was a good coach.
“But when the coach changes, it’s on us. Now it’s a clean slate. When you’re in a slide, everyone’s looking for answers. It’s almost a sense of waiting around, wondering what’s going to happen. You’re waiting to bottom out. Now it’s up to us to respond.”
Carlyle was a top defenceman in his playing career, which started with the Leafs in 1976-77. He later played for Pittsburgh and Winnipeg before he retired after the 1992-93 campaign. He won a Norris Trophy as the league’s best rearguard in 1981 with Pittsburgh.