Saturday, March 3, 2012

Wilson Gone, Lost Looking for Defensive Zone

randy carlyle leafs
The fans wanted it, and the fans got it. Chants of 'FIRE WILSON' rang loudly earlier in the week against the Panthers, the only life in the ACC after two quick goals against sucked any sort of interest right out of the crowd.

Brian Burke has finally fired Ron Wilson, although the inevitable might be too late for the Leafs to still make the playoffs. The team is only five points out, and the Eastern Conference is truly horrible, but the Leafs need to go on quite a run to end the season to make it happen.

The man brought in to lead the charge is a man known quite well to Burke, Randy Carlyle, the former Anaheim Ducks coach who was fired earlier in the year after a pitiful start to the season.

Caryle has experience, and more importantly, he has a ring. Wilson came to Toronto with experience, but couldn't get a supremely talented San Jose team over the hump, failing to win a ring. A fact that always attached question marks to his hiring in Toronto. Without a ring, Wilson didn't gain the immediate trust of the media and the fans, something that Carlyle won't have to worry about.

Carlyle coached the Ducks for seven seasons, making the playoffs in five of those. Since the lockout, only Mike Babcock has more playoff wins than Carlyle's 36.

One of the main criticisms of Carlyle is that he isn't good with young players and he leans heavily on his veterans, which doesn't fit well with a young Toronto squad. This is a curious criticism considering how heavily Carlyle relied on Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, and Dustin Penner during the Ducks Stanley Cup march in 2007. In addition, Francois Beauchemin and Chris Kunitz played large roles on that team, both of whom were in only their second full seasons in the NHL.

Plus, why wouldn't  you lean heavily on veterans like Scott Niedermayer, Teemu Selanne, and Chris Pronger. Those aren't normal veteran players; those are Hall of Famers.

Additionally, Bobby Ryan turned into a star under Carlyle, although their relationship may have soured at the end of the coach's time in Anaheim, and Cam Fowler was used extensively in his first two seasons in the league.

The criticism that Carlyle can't coach young players is misguided.

That criticism is often levied by those who wished the Leafs hired current Marlies head coach Dallas Eakins, a young coach who could better relate to the young players on the Leafs and could grow with the team.

The problem with hiring Eakins is that he has zero NHL experience. He has done a wonderful job with the Marlies, but he has yet to even coach an AHL playoff game. I have no doubt that he will become an NHL coach somewhere in the league, but learning to become a head coach in Toronto is a recipe for disaster. Toronto is not the place for someone to cut their teeth, not with the incessant media, reactionary fans, and high expectations.

The high expectations might be the hardest for Eakins. Hey, I know you haven't coached a single game in the NHL, but come in save our season and transform this team into a playoff contender. Sure, Wilson's 1000 plus games of experience couldn't do it, but you did a pretty good job with the Marlies this year, so you're qualified.

People want Eakins because they don't really know anything about him. He is an unknown, and in that, there is hope. He hasn't been criticised in the media, he has only been praised as the next most likely coach in the NHL. At this point he has done no wrong.

Unfortunately, the Leafs know that a successful AHL coach is not always a sure-thing in the NHL. At one point Paul Maurice was doing a great job with the Marlies and eventually replaced Pat Quinn as head coach of the Leafs. That ended horribly, although in Maurice's defence he was tasked with getting an old, broken team into the playoffs—an almost impossible task. If Maurice came at the start of the true rebuild in Toronto the outcome might be entirely different.

Eakins might have a bright future as a head coach, but at this point taking the proven NHL coach who has a ring under his belt is better than taking a chance on a coach that could be good. The Leafs already have enough faith riding on potential.

Carlyle's tenure in Toronto has already been met with media speculation that Joffrey Lupul wouldn't be happy, a story overblown after Carlyle failed to use Lupul in his comeback with Anaheim. Any thoughts that there is bad blood between the two, or that Carlyle would similarly bury Lupul in Toronto, is ridiculous. The two situations are completely different: in Anaheim, Lupul's ability to play was unknown due to serious back injuries, while that concern has been put to rest in Toronto as he has become an All-Star.

Carlyle has already admitted to being wrong about Lupul and recognizes that in Toronto he is inarguably a top-6 forward. Lupul, for his part, has said the past is the past.

Media crisis averted, time to go back to digging an early grave for James Reimer and/or Jonas Gustavsson.

At this time Carlyle was the best hire for the Leafs. The team might not make the playoffs this season, but the move should be positive long-term. Hopefully it starts with Carlyle pointing out where the defensive end is. Might take a few practices to get that concept clear.

And while Carlyle is the right choice, Ron Wilson is undoubtedly a scapegoat for the current death spiral. Burke decided that the team wasn't the problem, giving his endorsement by staying largely inactive at the deadline, so as the losing streak continued, the only solution became firing the coach.

It may not be fair because the Leafs had atrocious goaltending in February and for stretches of the season, but Wilson has failed to implement any sort of defensive system capable of insulating his keepers. In fact, he's failed miserably in implementing any semblance of a defensive system.

You can look at a team like Phoenix, who started the season with Mike Smith, a goalie who hasn't shown much during his NHL career, but has transformed into a brick wall this season thanks to Dave Tippett.

Plus, blaming the goaltenders for Wilson's dismissal is funny because the only reason Wilson wasn't fired last season was because James Reimer saved the team down the stretch.

Ultimately, the blame is falling on Wilson, but the entire team is culpable, from Brian Burke all the way down to the players.

Burke failed in recognizing the need for a veteran goalie to lead one of his young netminders and provide insurance against exactly what has transpired in the second half of the season. The forwards aside from Phil Kessel, Joffrey Lupul, and for large parts of the season, Mikhail Grabovski, have provided little, if anything. And the defence has been, well, horrendous.

Wilson does not bear all the blame, but after four seasons with little real improvement, despite a better team each season, it's his time to go.

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