Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Ron Wilson gestures on the bench.
Credits: (REUTERS/Fred Thornhill)
TORONTO - When Ron Wilson was announced as the 27th coach of the Maple Leafs in June of 2008, the team's fans were willing to give the accomplished hockey man time to build a winner.
That patience hit empty this week and the club responded Friday night when general manager Brian Burke announced that Wilson would be fired. He leaves a team in turmoil and one that never managed to reach the post-season under his reign.
Randy Carlyle, who teamed with Burke to win a Stanley Cup in Anaheim, will take over the Leafs for Saturday night's game at the Bell Centre in Montreal. He reportedly has been signed for three years and the rest of this season.
"This was not an easy decision for me to make," Burke said in a statement released by the team Friday night. "I want to thank Ron for all of his hard work and dedication to our organization over the past four seasons."
When approached at the team's hotel in Montreal, the general manager did not talk comment further, only to say that Carlyle would be introduced officially at 10 a.m., Saturday at the Bell Centre prior to the team's scheduled morning skate. The new coach, the 28th in club history and a former Leafs defenceman, was seen by reporters at the hotel, but refused to talk.
As caustic as Wilson appeared at times, the Leafs aren't about to get a warm and fuzzy replacement in Carlyle, a Sudbury, Ont., native who becomes the 16th man to both play for and coach the storied franchise.
Leafs players learned of the coaching change while out to dinner and were summoned back to the team hotel where it is believed Carlyle and Burke were going to meet with the group.
With Tampa Bay's upset of the New York Rangers last night, Carlyle takes over a team that is in 12th place in the Eastern Conference, five points behind Winnipeg, which currently holds down the final playoff spot. A six-game losing streak including several games where the team looked disinterested at times, leading to speculation that Wilson was on borrowed time.
Even Wilson, who was rewarded with a contract extension that he announced via his own Twitter feed on Christmas morning, seemed at a loss for what was going on around him.
"Players have to play, it doesn't matter who is behind the bench," said Leafs forward Mike Brown outside the team's hotel in Montreal. "We can't worry too much. Things happen in the business."
Wilson leaves the team at the end of one of the more tumultuous weeks in a franchise that has seen a few. In the third period of Thursday's loss to the Florida Panthers, fans at the Air Canada Centre broke out in a noisy "Fire Wilson," chant. The following night in Chicago, the Leafs lost 5-4 to the Hawks - the team's sixth in a row and 10th in the past 11 - leading to swirling speculation that Wilson would face the axe.
Wilson, who was hired by Burke's predecessor, Cliff Fletcher, finishes his three-plus years behind the Leafs bench with a sub-par record of 130-135-45, a run that included various forms of rebuild by Burke. The team was unable to acquire a legitimate first-line centre since Mats Sundin left the year before Wilson arrived and the departed coach has been plagued with brutally inconsistent goaltending.
This season started out much more promising, however, with Wilson seemed poised to take the club to the post-season for the first time since 2004. That it turned south so quickly, ultimately leading to his demise.
The coach, who on Thursday moved past Pat Quinn into fourth in career games coached with 1,401, ran Friday's practice and did his best to brush off the growing speculation around his fate.
"The talk around town, it doesn't matter," Wilson said when asked about the high-volume talk surrounding his future. "We have a job to rectify things and get points on the board. We can't think about the past. We have 18 games to turn it around."
Those 18 games will come under the reign of Carlyle, who brings a reputation of being a rigid taskmaster.
But only one NHL coach, Detroit's Mike Babcock, has won more post-season games than Carlyle's 36 since 2005-06.
"(Wilson) did a great job it was just one of those things we were going through," Leafs defenceman Cody Franson said Friday night. "We're going through some stuff right now. They made the move that they felt was necessary. It's just part of the game. We have to believe (that the playoffs are still within reach. We have to give everything we can to make a real solid push. Time has not run out on us yet."
It did on their previous coach, however.