Horachek will lead Maple Leafs, for now

Maple Leafs GM Dave Nonis says firing the coach is the easy solution, but hopes today’s news strikes some fear into the players, and motivates them back to their winning ways.

This may not be the opportunity Peter Horachek has been waiting for. But here it is.

Horachek, unofficially at least, will be the head coach for the Maple Leafs tomorrow night against the Washington Capitals and Barry Trotz, the coach for whom Horachek laboured as an assistant for nine years in Nashville with the Predators.

Steve Spott will be at Horachek’s side, and while the Leafs are saying for public consumption they haven’t made any decisions beyond the Washington game, Horachek has NHL head coaching experience and Spott does not.

In fact, Spott probably would have been more than happy to continue coaching the AHL Marlies for one more season, but was persuaded to jump in as one of Randy Carlyle’s assistants instead.

The fact the Leafs didn’t officially name Horachek as interim head coach isn’t surprising. In New Jersey and Edmonton, we recently saw general managers Lou Lamoriello and Craig MacTavish take over behind the bench while at the same time evaluating their options with coaches. Lamoniello is still there for the Devils to oversee Adam Oates and Scott Stevens, while MacTavish has now handed the reins to Todd Nelson.

Teams seem to be learning that the first choice when they fire a head coach isn’t necessarily the best choice.

Horachek, however, is the smart choice for the Leafs, and almost certainly the only one. Make no mistake about it; this move isn’t about the Leafs just desperately trying to make the playoffs. In fact, if the team doesn’t respond in a significant way over the next two months, one of the options on the table is to move veteran players and steer the team towards a high draft pick in June.

Teams don’t generally fire head coaches when they’re in a playoff position, but the Leafs did, a sure sign that team president Brendan Shanahan isn’t satisfied with simply trying to qualify for post-season play. Shanahan has overseen enormous changes to the coaching staff and front office since joining the team in April, as well as the roster.

The only thing he hasn’t touched is the core group on this team, and that’s likely to change either before the deadline or before the draft in June. That doesn’t put Horachek in an enviable position, particularly not with all the Mike Babcock rumours out there already.

Many believed this change, Horachek stepping in for Carlyle, was about to be made in mid-November immediately after the horrific 9-2 loss to Nashville on home ice. To that point, the Carlyle-Horachek-Spott relationship hadn’t been going particularly well, no surprise given that Carlyle’s preferred assistants had been fired in the off-season and that not only had he never worked with Horachek or Spott, but they hadn’t worked with each other, either.

But slowly, the staff started to click, Carlyle began to accept some of the lineup and philosophical changes that were being urged upon him, and the team went on a 10-1-1 tear. The highlight was probably a rock-solid 4-1 win over Detroit on home ice on Dec. 13.

But three consecutive losses to Carolina, Philly and Chicago made it clear the improvements to the team’s play weren’t permanent, and even a messy 4-0 win in Dallas left Shanahan and GM Dave Nonis deeply disappointed in how the club was regressing again to the way in which it had played last season.

They’d seen enough.

Horachek coached 68 games in Florida last season after replacing Kevin Dineen, and then was fired and replaced by Gerard Gallant. So he knows how this goes, and that the chances of it turning into a permanent job with a long-term contract are minimal.

At 54, however, this is probably his best chance if he can produce a minor miracle in Toronto. He never made the NHL as a player, and his run under Trotz in Nashville ended when the team decided to bring in Phil Housley to improve the team’s power play.

The organization has high hopes for Spott, the former Kitchener Rangers coach, and will want to protect him. The team will need another coach, and could elevate Derek King or Gord Dineen from the Marlies, or do something short-term and put player development advisor Steve Staios behind the bench to help out, or even newly hired executive Mark Hunter, who coached the OHL London Knights when his brother, Dale, jumped to Washington for a season.

What the Leafs almost certainly won’t do is anything that will tie their hands beyond June.

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