Brunt: Out with the old, in with the same?


Leafs fans rejoiced at Randy Carlyle’s firing, and unless the next coach brings home the Cup, they’ll call for his head, too

They come, and they go.

Of course the long view isn’t what matters in the heat of the moment. When a coach gets fired in any sport, the immediate fan reaction is one of relief bordering on joy, of satisfaction, of vindication, of blood lust and of hope—because hope is the product teams are really peddling to everyone who doesn’t get to hoist a trophy.

On the morning Randy Carlyle was relieved of his duties by the Toronto Maple Leafs, there also might have been the odd whiff of sympathy for a scattered soul who had the temerity to suggest that it wasn’t really his fault, that given a chance he still might have righted the ship.

But for the vast majority in that long-suffering community, it was an occasion to sing and dance around the funeral pyre and celebrate the end of the latest scapegoat for what is now closing in on a half-century of futility.

You wonder why human sacrifices and public executions always drew a crowd? Pretty much the same reason.

Things eventually cool down, though. The lizard brain surrenders to the rest. And what seemed black and white—bad coach gone, new coach coming, happy days just around the corner—becomes considerably more grey.

Begin this chain of events anywhere you like post-1967, but for brevity’s sake, let’s start with the arrival of Brian Burke and his desire to effect change as quickly as possible. There would be no stripping the franchise down to the wood and building patiently through the draft, an approach that is hardly fail-safe (see Oilers, Edmonton), unless you stumble into a Sidney Crosby, and that seemed particularly unsuited to the climate in Toronto. Instead, he was going to play rainmaker.

Welcome Dion Phaneuf, the new No. 1 defenceman and captain, acquired for a whole lot of nothing. Welcome Jean-Sébastien Giguère, now largely forgotten, the new
No. 1 goaltender. Welcome elite scoring talent Phil Kessel, in a riskier deal for, among other assets, the draft pick that turned into Tyler Seguin.

Burke inherited a head coach, Ron Wilson, who was a friend from way back, but also someone he had never felt moved to hire in any of his previous stops. Which brings us to one of the great truths in the sports business, or in any other kind of business: It is a whole lot better to be the bright idea of the person who is your immediate superior than to be the bright idea of the person your immediate superior replaced.

Wilson hung on, and even earned an extension, but by definition was the patsy-in-waiting, a card for Burke to play the moment things went south. The press conference in which Carlyle was introduced as the Maple Leafs coach you could all but script from memory. “Thanks, Ron, for all of your efforts, but you weren’t really my guy. This is my guy, now we’re on the same page and everything is going to be fine…”

Carlyle had to play the hand he was dealt, but as a new face, a new voice, he at least had the players’ attention. His team was going to be tougher, his team was going to be more defensively responsible. It sure as heck wasn’t going to get outshot night after night.

What will be remembered as both Carlyle’s greatest triumph and tragedy in Toronto was the series with the Boston Bruins, the Leafs’ long-awaited return to the playoffs, which ended with that remarkable game-seven collapse.

Soon enough, Burke was swept out by the new Tim Leiweke (we hardly knew ye…) regime, Brendan Shanahan was installed on high to change the team’s culture (though no one could really define what that was or how that change might be achieved), and Carlyle, along with GM Dave Nonis, went to the front of the firing line. He might have been gone before Christmas but for that 10-1-1 run, which every advanced stats devotee pointed out had to be illusory.

When Shanahan turned up in Winnipeg in January to watch the Leafs lose listlessly to the Jets, Carlyle should have started packing his bags.

Coming next? Shanahan’s guy—or guys, assuming that a new general manager will also be part of the mix—who will be given the task of either trying to build on the Phaneuf-Kessel foundation that Burke constructed in haste (and that at this stage seems mighty unlikely to bear the weight), or to embark on a trading-and-rebuilding program, which in a salary-cap world is no simple feat.

The fans will be asked to be patient. The fans will be asked to believe. And they will, until they win the Cup, or until the cycle repeats.

Feel free to place your bets on which comes first.

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