Sports Hockey


Maple Leafs players must look in mirror after latest coaching change

By Mike Zeisberger, Toronto Sun

“It’s not his fault we went on that skid. It’s the players.”

Those were the candid comments from Phil Kessel regarding the firing of the Maple Leafs coach.

Only they were not uttered Tuesday.

Nor were they in reference to Randy Carlyle.

The aforementioned Kessel quote, in reality, came in early March of 2012 when Ron Wilson was relieved of his duties as Leafs bench boss.

Here’s what Kessel had to say on Tuesday about Carlyle, who had just been dismissed from his duties.

“I don’t think it’s the coach’s fault. The players have not been playing as well as we would like.”

Notice the similarities here.

Specifically, the fact that both statements are, almost word for word, the same, even though they came 34 months apart.

That being the case, what’s changed?

The coaches?

Yes. Twice, in fact.

The core of the team?

Not so much.

And there’s the rub.

Whenever a coach is sent to walk the plank, you get the same responses inside the dressing room.

“The blame is on us.”

“He can’t play for us, defend for us or score for us.”

“We have to play better.”

That’s great. If you follow through.

But for Kessel, Dion Phaneuf, Tyler Bozak. Joffrey Lupul. Nazem Kadri, Cody Franson and James Reimer, this is their third coach for the Leafs — or, in this case, third set of coaches, since Steve Spott and Peter Horachek are now sharing the head bench-boss duties.

That being the case, at what point do these post-firing reactions from players just become an example of “white noise,” to use one of Carlyle’s favourite terms?

Moreover, at what point do all these cliches like we heard Tuesday simply morph into “blah, blah, blah” by the time it reaches your ears?

This just in: we’ve arrived there.

To be fair, Franson is one of the most approachable and standup guys in the league. As a result, the question was posed to him: Why should the public give credibility to the reaction of the players this time around when it’s the same stuff we heard less than three years ago when Wilson got the axe?

“I don’t know,” Franson said. “It’s tough. That’s the thought process that’s going on right now. It’s the awareness that has been brought to our attention. We know things have to change in order for us to stay together. I don’t know how else to explain it.

“It’s not the first time I’ve been part of a coaching change. It’s time to get back on the horse and get this thing turned in the right direction and start building on the positives and get going in the right direction.”

Five minutes later, with the media scrum having dissolved into one lone reporter, the refreshingly candid Franson revisited the question.

“I didn’t know how to answer that,” he admitted. “It’s tough.”

At least he was being honest. Media aside, that’s all the public is looking for.

Unfortunately, that’s not what the fans got back in November when the Leafs leadership group claimed they stopped saluting the fans with their sticks after home victories because “we wanted to change it up.”

Nobody was buying what they were selling. In reality, the Leafs changed “it up” because some players were upset at the fans for regularly chucking jerseys onto the ice to show their disgust.

And on the night they decided to “change it up” — specifically, a 5-2 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning on Nov. 20 — television cameras appeared to catch Franson starting to skate to centre ice for the normal gesture before a couple of veterans quickly sequestered him. The optics of the scene certainly seemed to suggest that Franson had not been informed that the team had decided to “change it up.”

Dysfunction at its very best — or worst, depending on your point of view.

Which brings us to Kessel.

Did he get Carlyle fired? Of course not. In Carlyle’s tenure as bench boss, Phil The Thrill averaged more than a point per game.

At the same time, Kessel is not a leader, not even by example. Dressing room sources suggest he had a significant say in Salute-gate, although Phaneuf, as captain, should carry the brunt of the responsibility for that bad call. Still, Kessel simply can not allow himself to lose his composure in public like he did Tuesday when asked by the Star’s Dave Feschuk if he was difficult to coach.

“I don’t think so. That’s a weird question for you to ask, though, on a day like that when your coach gets fired,” Kessel told a scrum of reporters.

When Feschuk defended the question, Kessel replied: “You think it’s my fault? Is that what you’re saying?”

Kessel then turned away and chuckled.

“This guy’s such an idiot here,” he said. “He’s always been like that.”

Interestingly, Kessel’s outburst came on the same day that Wilson lashed out at the Leafs No. 81 during a mid-day radio interview on TSN 1050 AM.

“You can’t rely on Phil,” Wilson said. “When he’s not playing well, he’s a hard guy to get on board and get on your side. He shows obvious signs of brilliance but Phil’s problem — it’s pretty much the way he’s been through his career — he’s two weeks on and two weeks off.

“It’s just the way it is. He comes and goes and he gets emotional. He lets that affect his game and his relationship with other players. That’s what you have to coach.”

The Kessel “can-he-be-coached-or-not” conundrum is not new. Prior to training camp, a report surfaced that Spott had questioned Kessel’s ability to be coached during a coaching clinic over the summer, comments the Leafs then-assistant coach subsequently claimed had been “lighthearted.”

And so, the circus that is the Maple Leafs continues to thrive.

Wilson, by the way, was wondering the same thing we are — how many coaches will the Leafs have to parade behind the bench before this group finally finds some consistency?

“Some of the core players have failed under two or three coaches so it’s got to be the players’ fault,” Wilson said. “You’d have to surmise that some of them might be uncoachable.

“You never change a leopard’s spots. You paint over some of those spots, but they’ll eventually shine through the paint and that’s just too bad.”

Maybe you can’t change a leopard’s spots. But you can certainly ship him to another zoo. At least try.

We’re not pushing for any particular player to be moved. But if this ship continues to take on water for the remainder of the season, it’s time for management to pull the plug on this core, even if some of the long-term contracts like those of Kessel and Phaneuf appear almost impossible to be moved.

Enough with the coaching changes. Enough with making guys like Carlyle the scapegoats. And enough with the hopes that Mike Babcock could be the saviour of all saviours.

The Leafs have the funds to make Babcock the NHL’s highest-paid coach, a role he covets. What they haven’t shown is that they have the ingredients to win, which is also a priority for the pending free-agent coach.

The bottom line: If the losing continues, it’s time to rip the core apart. General manager Dave Nonis and team president Brendan Shanahan have to know this.

Because loyal Maple Leaf fans certainly deserve better than what they are getting now.

Otherwise, all we’ll be hearing is more “blah, blah, blah.”


There were no charter flights booked to Toronto for Mike Babcock.

Nor was there a hastily-arranged press conference organized by the Detroit Red Wings to announce Babcock’s resignation as the team’s head coach, as much as Maple Leafs fans might be hoping for one.

While Leafs Nation might be pining for Babcock to step behind the Toronto bench now that Randy Carlyle has been given the boot, the Red Wings coach deflected away any such suggestions while meeting with reporters in Edmonton on Tuesday afternoon.

“It doesn’t affect anything I do,” said Babcock, whose Wings faced the Edmonton Oilers on Tuesday night. “We’ve got a game here to play.

“I’m real happy where I’m at. We’ve talked about this lots. It doesn’t affect anything I do.

“Everybody’s in the day-to-day winning business. When you don’t win, someone gets fired. We always think we’d like to give the guy more time but that’s because we’re coaches.”

Interestingly, Carlyle succeeded Babcock as coach of the Anaheim Ducks back in 2005.

Twitter: @zeisberger




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