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About sixteen months before they were calling for Coach Ron Wilson's head, Toronto Maple Leafs fans filled the Air Canada Centre with boos directed at captain Dion Phaneuf for his underwhelming play. Leafs GM Brian Burke defended the paying customers' entitlement to voice opinions during the game, but called the criticism of Phaneuf "disgraceful" back in 2010.
On Tuesday night, Leafs fans chanted "FIRE WILSON!" during Toronto's 5-3 loss to the Florida Panthers. Again, Burke said they were entitled to protest; but rather than finding their behavior disgraceful, he indicated the fans' acerbic chants were a significant factor in firing Wilson after three-plus seasons and hiring Randy Carlyle on Friday.
"After the last home game, it was clear to me that it would be cruel and unusual punishment to let Ron coach another game in the Air Canada Centre. I wasn't gonna put him through that," said Burke at Carlyle's introductory press conference on Saturday morning in Montreal.
"And I don't fault the fans. If you buy a ticket and you want to boo, you can boo. Fans show their emotions in many ways. But the deadliest thing is when a fan votes [with] their feet and they don't come."
Burke and Wilson have known each other since 1973, when they were college teammates. The GM said the last week has been "brutal," as the team set the wheels in motion to replace Wilson on Wednesday. Media criticism and fan frustration had reached their apex; Burke said neither was the essential reason Wilson was fired, but that both expedited the process.
"I wasn't going to [allow Wilson to] be put through that again," Burke said the ACC crowd's anti-Wilson chants. "It was hard to listen to. Hard to watch. But it was clear at that point that the team wasn't listening, watching the bench. They weren't paying attention. They weren't buying it. It was time."
Among the highlights from Carlyle's introduction as Maple Leafs head coach:
• Carlyle was informed by Ducks GM Bob Murray on Wednesday that the Maple Leafs had been granted permission to speak with him about their coaching job. Sportsnet reported that Leafs assistant GM Dave Nonis hammered out the contract with him on Thursday and that Wilson was informed by Burke on Friday evening that he'd been fired.
According to Pierre LeBrun, Carlyle's deal was for the rest of this season and three additional years. Wilson had one year remaining on this contract at $1.4 million.
Among the other candidates for the job, according to Burke: Dallas Eakins, the Marlies coach whose passing over for this gig sparked some controversy; assistants Scott Gordon, Greg Cronin and Rob Zettler; and Marc Crawford, who coached for Burke in Vancouver and is currently a TSN analyst.
TSN, by the way, broke the Wilson firing.
• Carlyle was hired now for two reasons, Burke said. He'll get a month and a half with this roster, teaching systems and evaluating talent. "This saves us a month in the fall. If we're gonna miss, we're gonna miss with the coach that gives us the best chance to win next fall," said Burke.
But with the Leafs five points out of a playoff spot through 64 games, Burke also believes that the postseason isn't out of reach. He said it was "a playoff caliber team" two weeks ago, when the Leafs occupied the No. 8 seed before a 1-9-1 death spiral.
"I've never had a team fall off the cliff like this before," he said. "This is akin to an 18-wheeler going right off a cliff."
Carlyle agreed: "It's not that they've lost their skills. It's that they have to rekindle their spirits."
• Carlyle buried the hatchet with winger Joffrey Lupul, who claimed the coach misused him and didn't respect his skill level when the two were with the Anaheim Ducks. "It's a mistake that I made and I take full responsibility for that," said Carlyle.
• Dave Farrish, who like Carlyle is a former Leafs player, will join the staff as an assistant coach. He was in charge of the defense under Carlyle in Anaheim, winning the Stanley Cup with him in 2007. Assistant coach Rob Zettler has been reassigned.
• Goaltending consultant Francois Allaire, criticized for the poor play of James Reimer and Jonas Gustavsson this season, is "not going anywhere" according to Burke. "I think we have the best goalie coach on the planet. I'm not going to change the coach because we have two young goalies battling [it] right now."
• As far as changes to this roster, Burke said that it's a team building to win now. He said that the Leafs were offered "four first-round picks for players on the team" and trade offers for 12 players at the deadline. "You get a first-round pick for a guy, that's three years we wait," said Burke, who clearly doesn't have three years at the current success rate. (In fact, rumblings were that this call to fire Wilson wasn't necessarily Burke's.)
One immediate critique of the Carlyle hiring: That the defense-first, rough-and-tumble style he prefers doesn't fit the current roster. Burke agreed, and said more Carlyle-esque players will be on the way.
"At some point, but not now. That's something for the summer," said Burke.
It's going to be an interesting summer.