I mean, given that most prognosticators certainly did not project the Leafs being in playoff contention this season (though hey, if you’ve been following VLM, I’ve been saying they can make it, because the east is not strong), and in the context of the above realities, aren’t you satisfied with a record of five and five losses ten games into the season? (By the way, what we would be saying, as Leafers, if it was our team that had meekly conceded those two goals by van Riemsdyk in the first period? The grousing would still be going on. The Capitals were, well, pretty listless. Ovechkin to me looks a like a guy who needs—and maybe wants—a change in scenery. ) Even the most loyal Leaf supporters have modest expectations for the present and are instead banking their hopes on a brighter future, based on the potential of young players like Gardiner, Kadri, Frattin, van Riemsdyk and of course, young Morgan Rielly who is likely not far off from being a Leaf.
Now, if we’re honest, they will need a lot more than that to be an elite team in the Eastern Conference, but there are other nice pieces, too, like Kessel, Lupul, Phaneuf, the gritty newcomer Komarov and a boat load of Marlies chomping at the bit for their shot at a career in blue and white.
But what was on my mind as I was watching the Leafs take on the Caps Tuesday night was this: where does Randy Carlyle fit in the above picture? He is here in a somewhat unusual circumstance. The General Manager that hired him is no longer here. The man in charge now, Dave Nonis, may well (if he’d had his druthers and been in charge at the time) have been of a mind to bring in someone closer to his “style”, say a coach like Dallas Eakins with the Marlies.
It’s not that Carlyle doesn’t have a secure contract. He does, of course. Or that Nonis does not hold Carlyle in high regard. I’m sure he does. It’s simply that he is, again, in an unusual situation.
Now, we can debate whether Carlyle is playing Kostka too much, or if he is mixing his lines the way some fans might want, and we have every right to chat about these things as if we have a say. But I’m not so much focused on that when it comes to Carlyle’s influence this season.
When he signed on here last season to replace Ron Wilson, I was cautious. Not necessarily negative, just, well, like a lot of people, wondering what Carlyle we were going to see. He had coached the Ducks, a veteran squad with superb goaltending, an outstanding defense corps and a ton of grit to a Stanley Cup not that many years ago. He has always been a respected hockey guy. (By the way, I remember him very well as a young, emerging Leaf defensemen in the late ‘70s. I was disappointed when then GM Jim Gregory trade him, because in those days I spent a lot of time at Maple Leaf Gardens and I really felt he was emerging as a tough, solid defensemen.
Since his retirement, after a Norris Trophy in Pittsburgh and some stellar years in Winnipeg, he has worked dutifully to earn his opportunities as a coach, fighting his way through the minors before landing with the Ducks.
From a distance, he seemed to have ‘lost’ his team a bit by last season, when he was fired and replaced by another ex-Leaf, Bruce Boudreau, who himself had been turfed after experiencing a lot of success in Washington. Carlyle wasn’t out of work long and when he was hired here, I think a lot of us wondered if he was the right fit for the roster— especially with Eakins handling his chores so admirably with the Marlies just down the road.
As I wrote at the time, I did not put much stock in the way the Leafs played under Carlyle at the end of last season, because while they were trying to impress a new coach, they were also largely playing out the string in another unsuccessful season.
But this season would show us what kind of coach we had, and what kind of Carlyle we would see.
There is no doubt he remains a coach with significant demands of his players. He maintains high expectations, even with a far less talented roster than he had in Anaheim. He expects his charges to play a certain way. He insists on matching lines and wants tough, physical and smart hockey. I think we wondered if his system would throttle the team’s offensive ingenuity and for me, the jury is still somewhat out in that regard. We’ll know more over time.
But beyond all that stuff—you know, the tactical and strategic matters that all coaches deal with and we fans argue about—I’ve been trying to watch Carlyle as he works his bench every night.
What am I seeing?
My sense is Carlyle is very communicative. He is not standoffish or aloof with the players. He seems to be chatting them up a lot. At times he is explaining, not surprisingly, what they need to do differently. But what has really struck me the most are the subtle little things—like the way he encourages the troops, especially when things are tough.
Against the Caps Tuesday night, when the home side scored to get within one in the third period and a fragile young team could easily have panicked, the coach immediately walked being Grabovski (one of his veterans) on the bench and gave him an encouraging pat, as if to simply say, “we’re still OK, let’s keep working”. I was not around him in Anaheim and to be honest, I had no particular interest in assessing, however amateurishly, Carlyle’s NHL coaching work before now. But what I am seeing, and I acknowledge that I am a bit surprised given his harsh reputation, is that he actually seems to have a relationship with his players. And it’s not a cold, distant relationship, which is something I think a lot of us had expected.
I’m not in any way suggesting he’s trying to be their friend. And I’m sure he realizes this is a team in transition, and that the young guys are, in many ways, a long ways from being finished products as NHL players. He surely knows that patience is a virtue—and required right now.
But again, strategy debates aside, I like a lot of what I’m seeing in Carlyle. He is not the crusty curmudgeon I might have expected he could be. He has a sense of humour and again, he is someone who communicates what he wants and the players seem to know what his expectations are and where they stand with him.
So, for now, count me as someone who is pleasantly surprised with that aspect of Carlyle’s approach so far. He wants to win every night, but he’s being patient, and Leaf fans will need to be, too.