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Does Carlyle stay or does he go?

For many Leaf fans, it isn’t even a question: the Maple Leafs need a new head coach—now.  But for others, the question may be a bit more nuanced. 

The veteran coach has just completed his first full season behind the Maple Leaf bench.  He took over the club toward the tail end of the 2011-’12 NHL season, and led the team to the playoffs during the lockout shortened season that followed.

This past season, with about twenty games remaining on the schedule, the Leafs appeared to be a certain playoff team.  They had strong netminding in Jonathan Bernier and while defensively they were less than formidable, they scored enough to win their share of games.

We all know how the season ended, and that leads us to where we are now.  With a new President of Hockey Operations (Shanahan) in place, it appears that the Leaf brass will stay as it is, led by Dave Nonis.

But what about the coach?  Typically, as just happened in Vancouver, when a new guy takes over, changes are made, either at the GM or the coaching level.

My views relating to Carlyle have evolved over his tenure with the Leafs.  I was not terribly pleased at first to hear he was the new guy, but thought I saw him connect with players in a way that Ron Wilson perhaps had not.  You could see him on the bench, patting players on the back and seemingly developing a relationship with them. 

While I’m not sure that assessment was totally incorrect, it certainly was news when former Leafs like Mikhail Grabovski and Clarke MacArthur went public last summer with their none-too-flattering views of the Leaf coach.

That said, finding former players who don’t like their old coach is not difficult. There is always a reason that things went off the rails, whether it was poor communication, the player being used improperly or simply a lack of meeting expectations.

So for me, hearing from a couple of critical ex-players was not enough to make me believe Carlyle could not coach this team.  And, as training camp ended, I wanted to believe that Nonis had provided the coach with “his” team—the kind of rugged group that would have skill but also sandpaper in their game.

At various points throughout the season the Leafs, while not exactly a grinding team, were winning games.  But the ‘hard to play against’ Leafs that I thought we had witnessed a year ago were a different bunch.  They could skate and score, for sure.  But they relied far too much on their goalie, gave the puck up too much and were too often outshot.

What at first seemed like a deficiency that could be ‘solved’, over time, became a trend that was often discussed but never rectified.

Once the team lost Bernier and began to struggle without top-flight goaltending, the issues that had been somewhat camouflaged by winning were exposed as a chronic condition.

There are always questions when trying to assess the impact of coaches.  The standard one this past season in Toronto had to do with whether Carlyle was fielding the right roster on game nights and whether he deployed his players effectively.  The related issues had to do with his so-called “system”.  Did he have the personnel to play the way he wanted the game played? Or were the players simply unwilling to embrace what was asked of them?

You can usually find positives to go along with the criticisms when determining if a coach has done a good job.  Yet there just aren’t that many.  And for me, that’s maybe the biggest concern of all.  Where is the evidence, in terms of team progress or the development of individual players, that leads us to believe we are on the right path?

I think Carlyle deserves credit for the Leafs very nearly upsetting the Bruins in the playoffs a year ago, though his critics may say the Leafs would have won the series had he simply called a time out in Game 7.

Can he take credit for the play of Bernier?  I don’t think so.  What about the emergence of Morgan Rielly?  I suppose, but you get the feeling that was going to happen anyway, given the confidence Reilly plays with.

The penalty killing, superb a season ago, was simply not good enough this past season. Had the positive pattern continued, I would argue that that is a plus in the coach’s favour. But it didn’t happen.

The first line was highly productive through much of the season, but most first lines are.  Our core defense group did not improve, by and large.

We missed a year’s worth of development for a number of young players who could have provided an energy fourth line because Carlyle continued to play veterans in those spots with no real results to show for it.

I’d like to be able to make the case for Carlyle, I really would.  Firing the coach is not always a solution.  In fact, it’s usually an admission of serious issues throughout the organization, from the management suite to the scouting department to the players who make up the roster.

But at the end of the day, Shanahan will make a decision.  And I think the decision has to be a new direction for the team—and a new coach.

I realize this lets the players off the hook yet again.  These are some of the same players (though not that many, at this point) who saw Wilson leave not that long ago.  In my view, the biggest issue is not behind the bench, but the ‘will’ and leadership of the players on this roster.

Nonetheless, it just feels like we watched the same movie too often this past season, and heard the same empty words from the coach—and the players.  There was talk, but no commitment to playing the kind of hockey that assures a playoff berth and something more than that. It's not that Carlyle did not preach about what he felt was needed, but the players could not or would not respond and play the kind of tenacious defensive hockey needed to win nowadays.

At times we were close—very close.  And in those moments, a lot of fans felt pretty good about the future.

But it just feels as though the future needs a fresh voice.


  1. After watching a few games in the first playoff round, I think anyone who still believes the Leafs would've had a chance this year must be smoking loco weed. The kind of disciplined defensive play that's essential to playoff success was never in evidence on this year's Leafs squad. The necessity of being able to roll four effective lines was something else that never motivated the leaf coaches this year. We heard the coach say the same thing game after game - "I taught it, but they didn't learn it. Gosh darned if I know why!" So he's got to go.
    We have talent, we just don't have a TEAM. Boston has a team - and they didn't hesitate to trade Kessel, Seguin, or Thornton when it was deemed necessary. Can you imagine the Leafs being so bold? No - we like to think we're ALMOST there. But we aren't. (And if we're honest, probably wouldn't have made the playoffs last year, either, if it had been a full season). I think we need to shake up our roster, because this group clearly can't get it done. My problem there is that I don't believe Nonis et al would make good choices in such a trade.
    So bye bye, Randy. Whatever the reason was for this year's implosion, it has to rest at his feet. It's a results business, and his results speak for themselves. If I hear they've kept him there'd better be a blockbuster player trade, because this sow's ear of a team isn't about to find itself in purse land any time soon.

    1. Hard to argue with what you said, Gerund. A new voice may help, but as you note, we need a commitment to team play.

  2. Hi Michael. Again I just want to say how thankful we are that you are still posting.

    I think Carlyle has to go and I'm sorry for it. There are some things I do like about Randy. I was happy to see some emotion behind the bench. For the most part last season he got a lot out of the team he had.

    As with last year, the Leafs struggled with defense and nothing was done in the off season to address it. The funny thing is that if they had the results would likely have been the same.The more ingrained the system became the more things fell apart. No one in the organization looked at it, identified the problems or did anything about it. We can look at the players and blame them for a lack of battle in the Offensive zone but the poor possession numbers, abnormally high shots against, failing PK, difficulty regaining possession, difficulty in breaking out (because the players are all so deep in the D-zone) all point to a failure of the systems employed.

    I blame the whole organization for what has gone on this season, not Randy alone. It was clear something wasn't working early in the year. Carlyle was completely baffled. The assistant coaches, Nonis, Loiselle, etc. did nothing. After 5 years of the same bunch and the same excuses, a new direction is needed and it can only be done with a complete change of management and coaching personnel. I don't believe you can change a culture or identity with the same group still in place. They will buy in at first with great enthusiasm then quickly go right back to doing things the same way they always have. (The only one I'd keep is St.Criox.)

    The only real improvement we've seen in a few years, the biggest difference, is better goal-tending. It saved last season and may be enough to save their jobs this season but I sincerely hope not. CN

    1. I'm like you, Colleen. I'd like to feel Carlyle should be here, but I sense Shanahan will make a change, for the reasons you cited.

  3. P.S. How ironic is it that James Reimer may have saved some front office jobs last season by dragging the Leafs into the playoffs? A lot of thanks he got for it. CN

  4. Players have bad years (Clarkson?)… so do coaches. Carlyle didn't seem as good this year. He seemed less attentive. He did not match lines or make small in-game adjustments as effectively as in the previous year. He stuck with his enforcers far too long and did not have an effective 4th line, while better options from the many excellent Marlies were not given a proper chance. Abbott and Brennan were young AHL all-star and top 10 scorers and played a total of two games for the Leafs.
    I think Leafs management is just waiting and watching to see what happens.
    Does Todd McLellan become available? San Jose played a fast, skilled game that seem well suited to the talents of the Leafs.
    Does Steve Spott take the Marlies to the Calder Cup? They swept in the first round.
    If Spott takes such a young Marlies team to the Calder Cup, then the Leafs might have one of the brightest coaching talents in the AHL…in house.
    If they were planning on bringing up more Marlies, it almost seems natural to bring their successful coach and really change the Leaf’s culture.
    If the Leafs flounder in the first month while the Marlies continue to dominate their division, I could see a quick change and Spott as the Leaf’s coach early in the season. It’s not a radical idea. Spott’s close colleague, Peter DeBoer has already come up from the AHL and taken New Jersey to the final.

    It might be time for Spott.

    1. I wonder if Spott will be thought of as a guy who needs a bit more time in the minors, DP?

      Could Eakins could return to the Leafs? He is on a long-term contract, but the first year in Edmonton was difficult.

  5. "I wonder if Spott will be thought of as a guy who needs a bit more time in the minors, DP?"

    Yes, that is partly the reason they might give Carlyle more time. They might wait until they are forced to make a choice. Carlyle is on a short leash.

    "Could Eakins could return to the Leafs? He is on a long-term contract, but the first year in Edmonton was difficult."

    There were problems in Edmonton and I am not sure the Leafs would be nearly as interested as they were previously.

    Watch some interviews with Spott. He comes accross as a modern open coach with an even keel, like Babcock or Joel Quenneville. He is well spoken and good with the media, while remaining business-like, which seems well suited to Toronto:

  6. I find myself wondering if the pedantic adherence to the chosen system (for which we have all had serious questions and concerns) was actually a choice made to ostensibly 'hide' the deficiencies of players with no interest in playing to a different template. In other words, was the present system already a compromise for Carlyle (given the players he was afforded). That could partly explain some of his choices throughout the year.

    I wonder if the long term viability of certain players was being evaluated and Randy was actually toeing the company line (for which, he may well be retained for another season). If he did what was asked of him, exposing the areas that need to be addressed, I can't see management firing him before we see another (possibly partial) season with him behind the bench. It's abundantly clear that Carlyle has a template in mind and his retention would indicate that there is a plan in place and the team is sticking to it, much to our 'interim' chagrin.

    Perhaps Randy will see a few significant changes in his lineup, whereupon, his message will hold more weight among those who remain. We will likely see a separating of the wheat from the chaff amongst the players if Randy survives the expected/ anticipated firing amongst Leaf supporters. It would tell me that he is part of the future (even if it may be a short leash, if things don't improve quickly next season).

    Perhaps it comes back to our earlier comments about teacher and learner and the responsibility that each role player assumes in the symbiosis of success. Just this morning I had a discussion with an English as a second language learner who wanted a guarantee to pass a test from whoever might tutor him. I suggested it was an unconscionable contract for the tutor, because the learner controls the effort shown in applying what the tutor is teaching. So also with Carlyle, he has very little control over what the players are willing to 'buy in to'... hence, the departure of the unexpected (MacA and Grabbo) last year and 'who knows' this year.

    I sense we may be very much surprised who the Leafs desire to keep and who goes... I'm starting to think the latter category may not apply to the Head Coach... I do wonder if the special teams assistants may go and someone like Kirk Muller comes in to the fold as an assistant (he had a great track record in that area in the past). It would also provide an interim opportunity and resource should Randy fail to bring results during a test season for him next time around.

    I know this is just observational speculation, but think there may well be hints of future possibilities in these observations.

    1. You make a very good point in your first paragraph today, InTimeFor62. Is it possible the system was designed to hide roster issues?

      Your line of thought here suggests Nonis may support Carlyle. We'll see how Shanahan sees things.

    2. Looks like my post came a couple hours early... wonder if Nick reads the site?

      Hope_Smoke ‏@Hope_Smoke 37m

      Kypreos said Leafs will shake up coaching staff & assistants are certainly gone. Said Muller would be a great option as a RC assistant

      Maybe a small analyst role on Sportsnet could be fun... access to Leaf games... what's not to like!

  7. Hi Michael
    Since I do not post elsewhere in Leafosphere, I have been worried (a little bit) that I would not have an opportunity to comment on the Carlyle issue.


    I am sure that it will come as no surprise to you that I believe Carlyle needs to go. I have been convinced for two years that there is a systems problem and his ability to adapt has just not happened. There have been excellent blogs identifying the reasons for defensive woes (one by your friend, Gus). Coaching is a Results-oriented business, and the results have not been there. Any credibility of MLSE holding people ACCOUNTABLE, will be lost if Carlyle somehow avoids the chopping block. In fact, it is disturbing that he would be kept because of the lack of quality of replacements - sounds like a cop-out. Just as an aside, I would want to interview Mark Messier - believe he was second choice last time with Rangers. While he does not have coaching experience, he has leadership in spades.

    As you correctly point out, coaching is just the tip of the ice berg, there are more deep-seated issues.


    I know Leweike has habit of starting mouth before engaging brain which has disturbed long-time Leaf fans and yourself, I am seeing something else.

    I am not a fan of Corporate Ownership, as winning goes beyond profitability. The successful franchises in sports have generally been those that reflect the individual owner's ego. The bigger the ego, the better chance of success. While I have a tendency to see Leweike as a mild version of Donald Trump, he seems to be learning. He recognizes that he is not a hockey expert and what a bonanza the Leafs would be if they were winners in the Toronto marketplace.

    My fear would be if he sees Shanahan as his version of Trump's Apprentice program. Since there is no formal career path/program to Shanahan's job we can only wait and see. No or minimal change would be concerning.

    In my minimal coaching background, I found that the better players that I started with, the better coach I could be. While I would like to believe that I improved young players, the better players offered a higher upside. On this basis, I believe that Nonis short-changed Carlyle. While we cannot see inside the organization, the impression Nonis projects is not one of confidence.

    The Players
    There are keepers and there are replaceable parts. In fact, I learned a long time ago that no one is indispensable. I assume much will be said about this area over the next few months.

    The current playoffs provide a good view of where the Leafs stand and their current position seems appropriate. What I don't understand is how the good teams seem to have so much more depth when everyone has the same rules? These teams seemingly get better players through their drafts and farm systems? Yet, the Leafs do not seem to want to give their young players the opportunity?

    1. Glad you posted, Ralph (RLMcC). Watching the playoffs is indeed a reminder that the Leafs still have a ways to go, and have some tough decisions to make.

  8. I think we have to look at Nonis and his decisions this season. Bernier, Clarkson ( I'm pretty sure Leiweke had more to do with bringing them in) The loss of Grabo for nothing, MacArthur for nothing (he had already decided he wasn't coming back), letting Colbourne go to keep players like McLaren and Orr, Komorov walking for the sake of 1 million so it could be spent on Clarkson, Liles in the AHL just to stay under the cap--Why was Komosarek bought out with only a year left in favour of Liles who still had a longer contract? This made no sense to me. There was no cap left to do anything when Bolland, Kulemin, and Bozak were out or to make any changes at the deadline. The only good transaction in my mind was Holland for a third pick and he had no choice there. Holland was used by Carlyle in just enough games. all be it sparingly, to change the pick to a second. I don't know how much Nonis was influenced by Leiweke and Randy but I see him as a bit of a puppet, not a confident GM. Loiselle and Poulin share the blame. Would Burke have made these decisions?

    As for Carlyle I agree he didn't have the roster he expected but he had what I think is a good team. He did have some control over his roster though and we all know how that turned out. I don't dislike Carlyle but he created his own mess and it got worse as he worked on it. Toward the end he was (quote MLHS) " riding Kessel and JVR like rented mules", and both were injured. Bolland came back far too early instead of using Holland. There was talk he was mad at Holland for the lacebite which wasn't his fault and resulted in severe swelling, blood poisoning and required intravenous antibiotics. Lupul, Bernier, Phaneuf (shoulder) and several other players playing injured or coming back too early makes me wonder if they felt pressured by Randy to play. He was not happy with the time Bozak took either, who came back only to be injured again. Carlyle's impatience regarding injuries, use of injured players, overuse of certain players which may have been a factor in some injuries, is just another reason why he needs to be gone.

    I don't believe the coaching staff or management are scapegoats. They all need to be accountable for this mess and I'm worried about any decisions being made about the players without a new group in place. I'm tired of each having the other's back, the bad decisions, the ridiculous statements ( Orr is great at chipping out the puck?!) and excuses. They've been together too long. I have lost all confidence that anyone in the organization knows what they are doing. CN

  9. I'm not sure that you have heard this story, but it seems on topic (what will Shanahan do?) and it certainly is a "Vintage Leaf Memory"...and it is somewhat funny.

    "Brendan Shanahan tells a story, which he repeated Thursday on NHL commissioner Gary Bettman’s satellite radio show, about growing up as a Maple Leafs fan and meeting former Toronto captain Rick Vaive during the summer of 1983.

    “When I was 14 years old I was skating in the summertime at a rink in Toronto,” Shahanan recalled. “Rick Vaive happened to be skating at an adjoining rink and we were actually in dressing rooms that were right next to each other.

    “I went in when he was sort of settled and asked him for an autograph. I didn’t get the best response from Rick Vaive at that time.”

    It was not a moment Shanahan would forget.

    The Devils made him their first selection and the second overall pick in the 1987 entry draft and he went straight to the NHL as a rookie with the team in 1987-88.

    “Fast forward four years later and Rick Vaive is waiting for a meaningless faceoff in Buffalo,” Shanahan said. “He’s now playing for the Sabres. He’s lined up next to some 18-year-old kid from New Jersey. When the puck dropped, I attacked Rick Vaive.

    “It was a quiet, uneventful game. He couldn’t believe the rage I had, not only in attacking him, but it took two (linesmen) to restrain me afterwards and throw me in the penalty box.”

    Vaive was dumbfounded.

    “He said to one of my teammates at the time, Jim Korn, ‘By the way, what’s wrong with that kid and why was he coming after me?’ ” Shanahan recounted. “Jim Korn said, ‘Apparently he asked you for an autograph when he was a little kid and you weren’t that friendly to him. So he’s harbored those feelings since then.’ ”

  10. A good interview today with Marlies coach,Steve Spott:

    You have to admit that he does sound like a modern NHL coach: smart, open, balanced and good with the media.

    ... and his knowledge of players throughout the OHL and other leagues is rather impressive.

  11. Lots of great points above already. I agree with others that this cannot ALL be blamed on the coach and some changes to the players need to be made as well. But at the end of the day if the players are not listening to the coach or the coach isn't doing what he needs to do (be it through being too old school, bad communication, stubbornness, whatever, insert many other things here) then the coach needs to be replaced. We can discuss the definition of insanity if we wish on this point.

    Anthony Petrielli posted on twitter yesterday a link to an excellent article he wrote up that showed the Leafs had the worst offense from their 3rd line players in the NHL. After a bit of discussion we both agreed that they most likely had the worst bottom 6 players in the NHL when it came to production. So if you shut down the top line and limit the 2nd line, the Leafs lose. We saw that in both of the slumps the team went through. Now, was this all the players or was some of it because Carlyle refused to play anyone with much skill in these slots and give them a real shot to play? Probably a bit of both.

    But really to make our bottom 6 better shouldn't be a massive chore. We have some kids that need to play to prove if they can or cannot make it. The bottom 6 UFA market is always the one with the most players in it each summer and you can get value. Look at Mason Raymond. He was essentially signed to be that 3rd liner and out played Clarkson so ended up higher than he really should have been. if your 3rd line can give you good solid minutes and at least league average secondary scoring it takes a ton of pressure off the first line to carry the team every single night.

    Our defense I will save for another discussion another day.

    I am in the Carlyle needs to go camp. I also believe we need to shore up the bottom 6 forwards either from within or good smart signings/trades this summer.

    1. As you said, Pep, the bottom six issue was evident as the year progressed. Teams obviously need not just effort but production from those units. I'd like to see more skill on the third and fourth lines.

  12. It's interesting to read that Liles has the best by far possession stats on the Carolina defense. I always liked John Michael and thought he should have been playing with the Leafs, but was never given enough games to get up to speed. On a Leafs team that preached better possession numbers, another head-scratcher for me. CN

  13. And now it sounds like they are firing the assistants but keeping Carlyle. One more get out of jail free card for Nonis and Carlyle just used his only one up.

    Talk about rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic...

  14. OK. I'm depressed. We'd better see some player movement. Or expect another 82 games of excuses. Sheesh!

    1. Depressed. Good word. After so many decades of sticking with the Leafs through thick and thin...and thin.. and thin...and anorexia. For the first time in my life I am having thoughts of committing Leaficide.

  15. I'm disappointed that Carlyle is being retained. I thought the special teams cratered and the players tuned him out, and of course the defensive system wasn't working. I think the importance of "continuity" in coaching is overrated; I have no issue in turning coaches over until you find one that can deliver sustained results. I would have fired John Gibbons and Ryan Nelsen too after last season.

    But don't commit Leaficide! Whatever bandwagon you jump on, I promise you it won't be as satisfying as being here when things turn around. And before anyone goes all "1967" on me, let me just say that I thoroughly enjoyed '93, '99, '02 and seasons like those where we had exciting, likeable contending teams. I survived Dan Maloney and I'm sure as hell going to survive Randy Carlyle.

  16. Hi Mike- your comment made me harken back to posts I've penned over the years where I've tried to remind fans that, despite many frustrating seasons, the Leafs have not always been lousy. The years you cite are among those memorable seasons, along with 1978.

    1. Those are fair enough comments.. but in reality the decent years have really been few and far between in our cheering years Michael. Even an average team would have more playoff runs of 1 or 2 rounds to cheer about. I can think of 3 times for a couple of years each since the start of the Ballard era until now that the team even came close to any reasonable expectations. #frustrated