History keeps repeating itself in the land of the Toronto Maple Leafs. The sad-sack organization has made five trips to the conference final since its last Stanley Cup championship in 1967. But other than those sporadic seasons of success not much has changed in 45 years.
General managers have arrived in Toronto and promised turnarounds, only to fail to deliver. Coaches have guaranteed better times, or even more recently a simple playoff berth, only to disappoint the loyal fan base.
The firing of Ron Wilson on Friday evening put an end to another terrible tenure behind the Maple Leafs bench. The time was eerily similar to when former Maple Leafs general manager Cliff Fletcher, who steered Toronto to two of those conference berths, relieved the late Pat Burns as head coach in 1996.
The 16th anniversary of that dismissal is on Sunday. Like Wilson, Burns was a defeated man back then. Like Wilson's six-game losing streak after losses on successive nights this week, Burns was let go after back-to-back defeats on successive nights to extend a losing streak to eight games.
When Burns was sacked the Maple Leafs had 17 games left in the season. Wilson was given his notice with 18 games remaining. Burns's replacement, Nick Beverley, got enough out the Leafs -- a 9-6-2 finish -- to earn a playoff spot. But Wayne Gretzky and the St. Louis Blues made sure Toronto didn't enjoy any more success that season.
If one win in 11 games wasn't enough evidence that another season had gone wrong under Wilson, Toronto general manager Brian Burke finally got around to firing his old colleague after flying to Montreal from Boston, where he attended an MIT sports analytics conference that dealt with cutting-edge statistics.
Burke didn't need to look at any statistics to know it was time to replace Wilson with ex-Leaf defenceman Randy Carlyle, who won a Stanley Cup for Burke with the 2006-07 Anaheim Ducks.
The team kept losing. Wilson kept blaming his players. Burke tried to build up his players. Wilson kept blaming them. Burke then didn't make any moves at the trade deadline on Monday because he said that he believed in this group.
Then after the abysmal 5-3 loss to the Florida Panthers on Tuesday, Wilson said in his post-game remarks, "It's frustrating, but understandable. We didn't do anything at the trade deadline and we came out tentative to say the least."
So instead of blaming his players, Wilson took a verbal swipe at his boss.
When Burke, the Maple Leafs' 10th general manager since 1967, arrived on the scene in late November 2008 he was supposed to be the franchise's saviour. Instead, the recent tradition of having the spring off has continued and could stretch to a seventh consecutive season if Carlyle can't fix the problem in a hurry.
Burke inherited Wilson. But he didn't mind. This was his Providence College buddy. This was a person Burke trusted so much that he installed him as the coach of the 2010 U.S. Olympic team.
Wilson, however, never pushed the Maple Leafs to the proper levels of pugnacity, testosterone, truculence and belligerence that Burke desires. That's the way Carlyle coaches.
Ever since the Ducks fired Carlyle on Nov. 30, there has been speculation that he would wind up behind the Maple Leafs' bench. But Burke went out of his way to say this wasn't so. He even gave Wilson a Christmas-time one-year extension. But here we are, 10 weeks after that present, and the coach who had just moved into fourth on the NHL's all-time games coached list (1,401) is now out of work.
In comes Carlyle. He was given a three-year contract, plus the remainder of this season.
It's the right move in the sense that even if he can't get the Maple Leafs turned around in the next five weeks to make the playoffs, he gets 18 games under his belt to evaluate the players and hit the ground running next fall. It's the right move in the sense that Wilson's time had expired.
It's the right move in the sense that Carlyle is part of that sad-sack history that has hovered over this franchise for 45 years. He spent two years on the Maple Leafs blue-line before they gave up on him and traded him to the Pittsburgh Penguins along with George Ferguson in exchange for Dave Burrows.
Carlyle flourished away from Toronto and two years later, in 1981, he won the Norris Trophy. This is a story that has been written many times about many different ex-Leafs since 1967.
The 55-year-old native of Sudbury, Ont. knows what he's in for taking over the Maple Leafs. He can be gruff and surly and will demand plenty from his players. But the Maple Leafs faithful don't care. They just want the sad-sack days to end.
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