To explain why he fired coach Ron Wilson, Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke used the airport anecdote: Say you have a friend who lives near the airport. He invites you over for a cookout. You stand in his backyard, cringe as the planes scream overhead and ask how he can stand the noise. “What noise?” he asks.
“At some point, players tune out the coach,” said Burke in a press conference Saturday morning. “I think the shelf life of a coach is tied directly to how hard that coach is. The harder that coach is on players, the shorter the shelf life usually is – unless you have success.”
By hiring Randy Carlyle, Burke has turned up the volume and turned up the pressure. Often GMs replace disciplinarians with players’ coaches or vice versa, because if one approach isn’t working, it probably makes sense to try the other. But Burke has replaced a hard ass with a harder ass, and if Burke doesn’t put more pieces in place and Carlyle doesn’t succeed relatively soon, the shelf life for both ought to be short.
The Leafs haven’t won the Stanley Cup since 1967 and haven’t made the playoffs since 2004. If the Florida Panthers make the playoffs and the Leafs don’t this year, the Centre of the Hockey Universe will own the longest championship and playoff droughts in the NHL.
Burke took over in November of 2008. Wilson was already in place, but Wilson was his guy – his former Providence College teammate. Burke hired Wilson to coach the U.S. Olympic team. He gave him a one-year contract extension in December when the Leafs were off to a good start. He stubbornly supported him. Recently, he said he was not contemplating a coaching change.
But then came Tuesday night’s 5-3 loss to Florida and the “Fire Wilson!” chants at the Air Canada Centre. Burke heard the roar of the crowd. “That was hard to listen to,” he said. But the players weren’t hearing the roar of Wilson.
“It was clear at that point, by then, that the team wasn’t listening,” Burke said. “Watching the bench, they weren’t paying attention. They weren’t buying it. It was time.”
And so, even before Wednesday night’s 5-4 loss at Chicago made the Leafs 1-9-1 in their last 11, Burke decided it would be “cruel and unusual punishment” to let Wilson coach another game at the ACC. He put his old friend out of his misery and hired another old friend. The Anaheim Ducks fired Carlyle earlier this season after his players tuned him out, but he won a Stanley Cup with Burke in Anaheim in 2007.
Burke said “we’ve got a guy behind the wheel that can get us where we need to go,” which was an interesting way to put it, considering he said later that the Leafs’ slide is “is akin to an 18-wheeler going right off a cliff.”
“I’m bewildered by it,” Burke said. “It’s like somebody hit me with a two-by-four. I’ve never had this before where a team just plain flat-out went into freefall.”
The Leafs have been up and down during Burke’s tenure, but they always end up in the same spot – not quite good enough to make the playoffs, not quite bad enough to stockpile top draft picks for the future.
Burke says he wants to rebuild on the fly, but he can never seem to find the right balance between the present and the future. Burke says his goal is a championship, not eighth place, but while the Leafs have a better foundation, they don’t have the high-end talent that suggests a dramatic improvement is imminent.
The Leafs are five points behind the eighth-place Winnipeg Jets with two games in hand – insert airport anecdote joke here – but they’re 12th in the East. They have to pass four teams to make it, including the Tampa Bay Lightning and Buffalo Sabres, who sold players for high draft picks before Monday’s trade deadline.
If Burke were focused on the long term, he could have peddled players for high draft picks, too – players like unrestricted free agent Mikhail Grabovski, restricted free agents Nikolai Kulemin and Clark MacArthur, and 22-year-old defenseman Luke Schenn. Burke said he turned down four first-round picks for players on his roster and offers on a total of 12 players.
“Every trade we were presented meant that we had to wait and our fans had to wait,” Burke said. “So you get a first-round pick for a guy. What is that? That’s three years for most of them. So that’s three years we wait. And I said no. … We think we’ve put some key blocks in place as far as what we need to do.”
But Burke is known for being bold. If he were focused on the medium term, he could have gathered those first-round picks with the intention of flipping them for other assets this summer, such as a No. 1 center or top-shelf goaltender. If he were focused on the short term, he could have done something to give Wilson a boost down the stretch.
Or Carlyle, for that matter. Asked if he would tailor the team to Carlyle, Burke said: “At some point. Not now. It’s after the trade deadline. We can maybe tinker with it a bit, but no. That’s something for the summer.”
Burke gave two reasons for making a coaching change now. The first is that “this coach gives us a chance to salvage the season.” That seems desperate and unrealistic and at odds with Burke’s stated philosophy.
How is it salvaging the season when the goal isn’t eighth place? Even if the Leafs squeak into the playoffs, are they going to upset the top-seeded New York Rangers? No. That’s why I thought Burke should let Wilson finish the season, let him go if he missed the playoffs and let the new guy start afresh.
But Burke’s second reason makes sense. Hiring Carlyle now gives the Leafs a head start on 2012-13. Carlyle can install his systems now and evaluate the players up close. “If we’re going to miss,” Burke said, “we’re going to miss with a coach that gives us a better chance next fall.”
Carlyle seemed almost cuddly Monday morning. He said he had to ease the tension of the team and raise the confidence of the players. He played nice with the Toronto media – who put so much pressure on the Leafs, battled so much with Wilson and are so infatuated with their own influence – telling them that everybody has an interest in what’s going on with the Leafs “because you guys make it exciting.”
But don’t be fooled. Carlyle is as cuddly as a grizzly bear, and he needs more of the truculent team Burke envisioned than the speed and skating team he built for Wilson. Burke has to make more moves, and Carlyle has to make even more noise than Wilson did.
“I don’t like coaches who are warm and fuzzy,” Burke said. “The game shouldn’t be fun, and I tell our players this all the time: The fun part of the game is winning.”
Can you stand it?