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.