Burke to Wilson: Win or else

Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke (above) has served notice to head coach Ron Wilson, by...

Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke (above) has served notice to head coach Ron Wilson, by firing two of the team's assistants, that he will have to earn a contract extension. (ALEX UROSEVIC/QMI Agency file photo)

LANCE HORNBY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 1:30 AM ET

TORONTO - Loyalty has defined Brian Burke as player, manager and executive since he played at Providence College in the 1970s with a guy named Ron Wilson.

But blind loyalty doesn’t wash with Leafs Nation in 2011, after six years of watching every Canadian team make the playoffs at least once and two of them make the Stanley Cup final. That’s why coach Wilson is going to have to earn his contract extension, why he found himself under orders to pick two new assistants, to change a “stale” dressing room and special teams. And why old soldiers such as Jean-Sebastien Giguere might not be back.

Burke began what should be a pivotal two weeks for the team, by moving out long-time aide Keith Acton and Wilson favourite Tim Hunter. The replacements are Scott Gordon and Greg Cronin, both of whom bring more head coaching experience, the kind of authority Burke thought was lacking. Burke and Wilson had said there would be no changes to the staff, but the ensuing two months of playoffs revealed the gap between the Leafs and Cup-contending clubs. There’s also the general belief around the ACC that the next head honcho at Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd. will want to see tangible results.

“As I watched our team play last season and as I considered things in the off-season, it became obvious to me we needed a change,” Burke said Monday. “The special teams performance (better this year, but still far below playoff-ready) was the catalyst, the lightning rod for criticism of the coaching staff. There are other factors. I believe with our existing staff, we got stale, a word that doesn’t work in pro sports. Our players need to hear some new voices.”

Why, Burke was asked, did the broom not extend to Wilson, who has been here longer than any Leaf coach who has failed to make the playoffs. As he did in April, Burke took some of the blame for not furnishing him the proper tools, such as a No. 1 centre. The late-season push also took some heat off and generated talk that Wilson would get an extension to what’s already one of the most lucrative for an NHL coach. But woe betide Wilson if a fourth season were to start off with the Leafs in playoff peril by American Thanksgiving.

“Last fall, when we had a tough start, we had a lot of clamour for a change and we didn’t make one,” Burke said. “I can look in the mirror and say I’ve stood by Ron (but) I don’t think loyalty requires me to extend his contract. I told him if we have a good start, that’s something we will address very early on. I believe every head coach has a shelf life. Ron hasn’t (passed his).”

Wilson at least had a say in who was coming in to join he and survivor Rob Zettler on the bench. Gordon coached the New York Islanders and was twice his assistant with Team USA. Cronin worked the past six years at Northeastern amid some assisting with the Isles and helping launch the U.S. junior development program.

“It will be unique that Scott and I are used to running our own practices in the NHL, AHL and college,” Cronin said. “Some of the player development skills I have will translate well, carving out a role for players, how their identities will impact the team.

“One of the reasons I came here was all the young guys on the team. There were older guys when I was in New York, Trevor Linden, Rich Pilon, Robert Reichel, Tom Chorske, Ziggy Palffy, Kenny Jonsson. In this situation, four of the top six defencemen are 25 or younger.”

Both Cronin and Gordon come from an unstable situation on Long Island, where survival of the team seemed to take precedence ahead of building a winner.

“You already have that (stability) here,” Gordon said. “If you’re a passionate player, you want to be in a place that’s passionate for the game.”

Burke said he would not rule out re-assigning Acton and Hunter within the organization, but also promised to help them find jobs. Acton had managed to hang on through three Leaf coaches since Pat Quinn hired him in 2000. Hunter had been with Wilson in various stops for more than a decade.

“In my mind, having watched for 2 1/2 years, it was time for a change,” Burke said. “Special teams is always the lightning rod and just other little signs, slippage with younger players. But it’s not the time to shovel dirt on the two coaches who are leaving, Part of the reason our special teams haven’t been better is my fault. We haven’t had the players we need to (improve them). The GM deserves some blame when you make a coaching change, but I do think we’ve turned the team over and have players now. We need to demand (more), we need to get better.”


Videos

Photos