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Firing of coach Randy Carlyle puts heat on Maple Leafs' core players

01/06/2015 02:59 EST | Updated 03/08/2015 05:59 EDT
TORONTO - Once Dave Nonis announced the firing of Randy Carlyle as coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs, the attention turned immediately to the players who couldn't get the job done.

"When the coach gets fired, it's not about coaching, it's not about management, it's about the players," goaltender Jonathan Bernier said.

Taking the most heat are members of the Leafs' core, especially those signed to long-term contracts: winger Phil Kessel, captain Dion Phaneuf, centre Tyler Bozak and wingers Joffrey Lupul and James van Riemsdyk. Nonis, the general manager responsible for those deals and others with winger David Clarkson and defenceman Jake Gardiner, said that group is under constant evaluation.

"People think that players are set in stone. I've said before players are moveable," Nonis said. "This wasn't about the core not listening to Randy or anything like that. We just felt we weren't going in the right direction."

Carlyle is the only coach to get the Leafs to the playoffs since the 2004-05 lockout. He followed Ron Wilson, who was fired late in the 2011-12 season. In a TSN radio appearance Tuesday, Wilson said some of the Leafs' players could be considered "uncoachable."

Kessel took issue with a reporter's question Tuesday about being difficult to coach, calling it "a weird question" to ask.

"You think it's my fault? Is that what you're saying?" a defensive Kessel asked the reporter.

"I don't think so," he continued. "I play, eh?"

Kessel, who is in the first year of a US$64-million, eight-year contract, hasn't missed a game since 2009-10 and leads the Leafs with 41 points on 18 goals and 23 assists. On radio, Wilson said Kessel's problem was that he was two weeks on and two weeks off.

Phaneuf is in the first year of a US$49-million, seven-year contract. The veteran defenceman owned up to the fact that the core group should be under the microscope now.

"That is a very fair question for you or anyone to ask," Phaneuf said. "The bottom line is, we, as players, have got to get the job done. This is a result-oriented business, and we are expected to win hockey games."

The Leafs have 45 points through 40 games and are in the second wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference. They missed the playoffs last season after collapsing down the stretch and blew a 4-1 lead to the Boston Bruins in Game 7 of their first-round series in 2013.

Peter Horachek, who will be behind the bench along with Steve Spott for at least the Leafs' next game Wednesday against the Washington Capitals, said players had to take ownership of the situation. Inside the locker-room, there was a lot of players accepting at least some blame for Carlyle being fired.

"It's never on one person, it's a collective thing," van Riemsdyk said. "But obviously he’s the fall guy now. It’s now up to us as players to get the job done and figure things out here."

Defenceman Cody Franson, an impending unrestricted free agent, said accountability has to come from players.

"This action isn't an action of it was just his fault," Franson said. "We know within our room that we're as at fault as anybody else. At the end of the day it's up to us in the room to make things happen and we weren't doing a good enough job of that."

Brendan Shanahan is still in his first few months on the job as president, so the changes may not end here. With that in mind, Nonis said he was not concerned about his own job security given that this is the team he assembled.

"You make your decisions on what's best for the team and that's not going to change," Nonis said. "If you're thinking about something else, you're not going to be taking the right things for the organization."

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