MONTREAL – Randy Carlyle met with his new team for close to an hour on Friday evening, the new face and voice behind the bench of the Leafs.
"I sensed that the hockey club is very, very tense right now," Carlyle said Saturday morning during a introductory news conference at the Bell Centre. "I feel that the confidence level of the group is probably at a low where it's my responsibility as a head coach and a coaching staff to pick these guys up. They've got to feel a lot better about themselves than where they are today."
Freefalling down the Eastern Conference standings, the Leafs dropped 10 of their final 11 games under Ron Wilson, who was fired on Friday, falling from a secure position in the playoff hunt to 12th in the Eastern Conference (65 points) with only 18 games to play.
"It became obvious to me in the last week that we needed to make a coaching change if we wanted to try to salvage this season," a stern-looking Brian Burke said during the news conference. "I've never had a team fall off a cliff like this before in my life. I've had dips and I've had slumps, had rough patches, but this akin to an 18-wheeler going right off a cliff and I've never seen anything like it before in my life. I don't know what happened."
Contacting his former team in Anaheim for permission to speak with Carlyle on Wednesday, Burke e-mailed Wilson on Friday afternoon from Boston, set to deliver the news in person at the team's hotel in Montreal later that night.
The tipping point for the Leafs president and general manager emerged less than a week prior, his club dropping a 5-3 decision to the Panthers in Toronto amidst a chorus of chants from a crowd yearning for Wilson's dismissal. "After the last home game, it was clear to me that it would be cruel and unusual punishment to let Ron coach another game at the Air Canada Centre," Burke said. "I wasn't going to put him through that."
Addressing the subject of prospective coaching changes in the past, Burke always spoke of the need for indicators which showed a coach unable to get through to his team. He saw one such example firsthand in the loss to Florida.
"To me, it was clear at that point by then that the team wasn't listening," Burke said, "watching the bench they weren't paying attention, they weren't buying in and it was time."
A former draft pick of the organization, Carlyle joins the Leafs after a seven-year stint with the Ducks during which he won a Stanley Cup alongside Burke in 2007. With an old-school, hard-nosed style, Carlyle is known to be sharp and highly demanding of his players.
"I don't like coaches who are warm and fuzzy," Burke said, noting TSN analyst Marc Crawford and Toronto Marlies head coach Dallas Eakins as other prominent candidates in the search for the team's next head coach. "I like coaches who are hard on players."
Carlyle was fired by the Ducks earlier this season after a 7-13-4 start, replaced by Bruce Boudreau. He'll look to rejeuvenate the speed of the slumping Leafs.
"I remember this hockey club playing against us in Anaheim and the number one thing that they able to prove to me as an opposing coach is they could skate," Carlyle said. "And that's what they have to get back to. They're a skating hockey club and they've got to get on their horse and start to skate."
"We have to find a way to re-energize the group," he concluded. "It's not that they have lost their skills, it's just that we have to rekindle their spirit. It's important for them to go and feel good about themselves. They have an opportunity now to show a new face, a first-time impression. And that's what we talked about, 'I'm new here. Let's make sure that you give me everything you've got both on and off the ice'."