Hobbes wrote that in a state of nature, life is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." I can't help but feel like taking a coaching position in the NHL is pretty much the same.
With the Leafs 3 points back of the Winnipeg Jets and with what Steve Burtch at PPP illustrates as an uphill battle to reclaim the 8th seed in the East, Ron Wilson's tenure as Leafs' Head Coach looks to be drawing to a close.
While Wilson's time in Toronto was far from successful, it's tough to lay too much blame at Wilson's feet for many of the Leafs' failings. During Wilson's four years as Leafs' Head Coach, the team has finished 30th, 30th, 21st, and 25th (so far) in team save percentage. It's no surprise that with his job on the line, Wilson has started pointing fingers.
Of course there are other areas of concern which are more directly impacted by coaching. The Leafs' penaltykill, for example, has ranked 30th, 30th, 28th, and 29th in Wilson's four-year term. While it's true that he didn't have the best penaltykillers, it's incumbent on the coach to produce better results than those. It's hard to believe that a coach with Wilson's resume wasn't able to put together a single decent season in this regard.
Whether you choose to lay the blame for the team's failings at Wilson's door or not, it's fairly clear that the Leafs will likely making a change at the helm should they fail to reach the postseason for the fourth consecutive year.
Having said this, if you're removing your coach, you'd best have someone better to replace him with. Here's a quick look at some of the candidates.
Carlyle coached the Anaheim Ducks (formerly 'Mighty') from 2005 until the 24 game mark of this season. In six full seasons at the helm, Carlyle's Ducks finished with 98 points or better four times, won a Stanley Cup, and missed the playoffs only once.
The connection with Burke is there as BB hired Carlyle upon taking over as Ducks' GM in 2005. The difficulty of bringing in Carlyle is that he's a known hard-ass and after four years of Wilson, that act might be wearing a little thin. Teams will often alternate between coaches who are 'players' coaches' and guys who are more demanding. From a personality perspective, Carlyle would be more of the same.
Gordon was brought in to the Leafs' organisation as an Assistant Coach prior to the start of this season and brought with him a reputation for improving special teams. As a former Head Coach, it was widely speculated that if Wilson's Leafs were to falter out of the gate, that the reigns of the team would be handed over to Gordon. After two hears at the helm of the New York Islanders, Gordon has yet to make a playoff appearance but then again, he wouldn't be the first Islanders' Head Coach to fail in that regard.
Gordon was charged with improving last season's 22nd ranked powerplay unit and has done an admirable job with the Leafs currently sitting 11th in the NHL. While certainly not as abrasive as Wilson, Gordon has been criticized for not being a great communicator and also prefers an aggressive forecheck to the dump-and-chase game. While Gordon would certainly be a different voice and his success with special teams are to be commended, one can't help but wonder if replacing Wilson with Gordon might be more of the same.
Current coach of the Toronto Marlies, Dallas Eakins has received praise for his ability to develop players and is seen as a strong communicator. Read what you will into AHL success but Eakins' Marlies are currently 1st in the North Division and tied for second in the Western Conference. This year's Marlies are one of the best teams in the league at keeping pucks out of their own net, which is commendable in light of the number of legitimate prospects skating on their team (while many other teams are skating AHL-lifers).
Everyone who plays for Eakins seems to love him which would undoubtedly be a refreshing change in the Leafs' locker room. The strikes against Eakins, as I see them, are two-fold. Firstly, I have concerns about bringing in a coach with no NHL experience into the pressure cooker that is The Maple Leafs. Secondly, one wonders if the organisation might not be better served keeping a player development coach of Eakins' calibre at the AHL level.
This one is a bit of a stretch but hear me out. With the Blackhawks currently sixth in the Western Conference and faltering down the stretch, there have been rumblings in Chicago that a new voice might be needed in the dressing room. The 'Hawks inched into the playoffs last season, finishing 8th in the West after winning the Cup the year before, and were expected to rebound this season.
Current Blackhawks' GM Stan Bowman has probably overheard a thing or two about coaching and is, as we all know, in a unique position to possibly lure one of the all-time great coaches out of retirement. If Scotty Bowman expressed any interest in coaching again, I wouldn't be surprised to see Quenneville let go should the Blackhawks fail to win a playoff round or two.
Quenneville himself is, for my money, one of the best coaches in the league. With 14 seasons in the league and 12 playoff appearances Quenneville might be just what the doctor ordered in Toronto. He comes off as a bit of a curmudgeon but his players seem to have a lot of respect for him. If he's available, I expect he'll be among the first to get an interview in Toronto.
If Wilson is fired before the end of the season, then bring in an interim coach or leave it to Gordon for the rest of the season.
Carlysle is a good coach, but I'm not sure he would do so well with the current roster of players. I see him as more of defense-first coach, and the team would have to change half its roster to accomodate his style. If the plan is to go ahead with these players as Burke seems to want to do, then in my opinion, Dallas Eakins is the right choice going forward. But not at this time of the season. I think that the Leafs are finally on the right track with player development and with the emphasis the organisation is putting on it, he should stay with the Marlies for the rest of the year, bring them deep in the AHL playoffs to give the young players a taste of winning and success. And the point you make of him not having NHL experience and maybe should be kept at the AHL level to develop talent is a good one. You just know however that his record's not going unnoticed by other organisations; he will be offered and NHL job soon and won't be with the Marlies very long either way. So I think his talents could be used with the big club to help the youngsters on Leafs to develop further, instead of regressing as it appears they are doing currently.
That's a great point on Carlyle and I think you're probably right more often than not. Hitchcock is similar though and he had great results in StLouis, almost immediately.
Dallas Eakins' fate will be determined this playoffs. Should he win, or bring the Marlies to the Calder Cup, he instantly becomes a viable candidate for the position by virtue of merit. If not, he likely returns to the Marlies for additional seasoning.
Carlyle being seen as tough and more of the same is not entirely true. He's the type of coach that will crack the whip at times, and by all reports Wilson is the type to let the young team fester in silence after a bad loss. This still does not make him the best choice for the Leafs, but in the end, it won't end up being the best coach for the Leafs coming in, but the best one not currently employed elsewhere.
I don't think Gordon is the shakeup the team needs, regardless of his ability. He's now a part of the funk the team exudes.
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