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Shuffling the coaching staff: what’s the message? Only questions, no answers

When the Maple Leafs announced (perhaps a surprise to many) that they were firing two of their long-time assistant coaches and bringing in two new replacements, there seemed to be a sense of relief in Leafland that they were at least doing something.

I should make clear that many years ago I had occasion to work with Keith Acton as part of my professional “day job”.  A nicer guy you probably couldn’t come across. (I should add that I haven’t spoken with Keith in ages, so I have no personal axe to grind here in the least…) He had a long and distinguished NHL career as a small but gritty center, after a fine junior career in Peterborough.  If I’m not mistaken, he won a Cup with Edmonton.  He coached in Philly and with the Rangers before Pat Quinn hired him in 2011, I think it was.

Acton came very close to getting the Ottawa head coaching job that John Muckler gave to Bryan Murray several years ago.  He stayed on Pat Quinn’s staff and as fans know, continued on with the club through the Paul Maurice and Ron Wilson years.

He was considered the penalty-killing specialist, though under Wilson that kind of designation apparently did not exist.

Many seem happy to see him gone, but in truth, it’s impossible to know how much of an impact an assistant coach is or isn’t having in most cases.  It's the head coach who carries the bulls-eye, for better or worse.

The dismissal of Hunter is a bit more puzzling for me.  Acton was not Wilson’s guy, so if a change was to be made, that’s not a shock.  But Hunter has been with Wilson in (I believe) each of his four NHL coaching stops.  I believe Tim has interviewed for head coaching jobs over the years as well.  He was, as many of you well recall, a rugged, hard-nosed winger in the league for years, most memorably with the Flames.

So two (and by most accounts, well-regarded) “new” coaches come in, one a former Islander head coach, another is a U.S. college coach, formerly an NHL assistant coach as well.

I just have questions, no answers:

  1. To me, the head coach is the guy responsible.  So who made this decision, the head coach or the General Manager?
  2. Is this a case of scape-goating?  I mean, the team has been, let’s be honest, pretty awful for the three seasons that Wilson/Burke have been here.  The East has been wide-open every year and they haven’t really come close to a playoff spot, if we’re being honest. Why are two assistants being sacrificed, instead of the guy responsible?
  3. Is this being done because our penalty-killing has been poor?  If so, and I’m no coach, but regardless of what “scheme” you use, it’s all about effort.  It’s up to the head coach to get the guys to play with maximum effort at all times, regardless of talent levels.  Why are the assistants taking the blame?
  4. Coaching does matter, and the quality of your assistant coaches does matter.  Absolutely. Now ironically, Hunter was considered one of the most progressive guys in the game, very tech-savvy, etc.  So was this a case of Wilson and Hunter no longer being on the same page, or having a falling out of some description?
  5. Where does this leave Wilson?  Historically, in many cases, when upper management starts eliminating your staff one by one, you eventually walk the plank, too.
  6. What were Rob Zettler’s areas of responsibility that enabled him to survive this mini-purge?  He too is no doubt a good coach.  But it’s fair to ask what spared him his job, since two-thirds of the staff was let go and he is the only survivor?
  7. Did Wilson make this decision?  If not, did he go to the wall to defend his staff?  Evidently not, as he is still the head coach today.
  8. It has always troubled me when I hear a team announce a coach (head coach or assistant) has been fired, and they name his replacement the very same day.  In other words, they went around and interviewed people for a position before even having the courtesy—or guts—to inform their current coach that he is being replaced.  For me, that’s always a classless thing to do.  If you don’t want your coach, fire him.  Then start the search.  (I don’t know when Acton and Hunter were informed they were “out”, but unless it was earlier, this was one of those times when a team did the wrong thing…)
  9. Since Wilson has apparently not signed an extension, he does in fact become the classic lame-duck coach, as he will be in the last year of his four-year contract. What will his mood (and demeanor) with the local press be when they start asking him questions about his job security if the team loses a couple of games in October?
  10. Why now?  It’s taken them two months to realize they weren’t happy with these two assistant coaches?  It would have been far classier to let them go in April, so they would have a better shot at other coaching jobs that might be available going forward.
I also can't help but wonder, as I heard some radio "analysts" posit on Monday, who will be the "good cop" on the Leaf staff- the the strong, approachable and responsive communicator who will build relationships with players on a staff not exactly known for warmth.

Hey, these moves might turn out great.  Maybe two new assistant coaches will make all the difference.  Suddenly we’ll have a great power play and lead the league in killing penalties.  I doubt it, but I suppose it's possible.

I sense, though, that unless many other issues are addressed first, as in, unless we start attracting/acquiring some true elite-level forwards, the path to the playoffs—much less a berth in the finals—is still a long, winding and uncertain road.

1 comment:

  1. Perhaps this sheds a bit of light on the turnover.

    I would take it with the grain of salt and criticism that reading something from this particular source usually requires.