There are plenty of valid reasons to be critical of Randy Carlyle as coach of the Maple Leafs. I don’t need to provide a laundry list of issues that have concerned fans over the past couple of seasons. They have been well documented.
I’ve said here before that all eyes will be on Carlyle when the season gets underway for real on October 8. Was the summertime contract extension just a smokescreen to give Shanahan more time to assess the coach—and the roster? Or does the new boss actually believe that Carlyle, long-term, is the right guy to take the Leafs back to the playoffs?
I really don’t know. For all we know, Carlyle really doesn’t want to make the adjustments many fans seem to want to see in terms of a system and game-night personnel. And perhaps he and Shanahan are in fact on a philosophical collision course that will end in a new coach being hired for the blue and white before the new season is out.
But as we watch the Leaf players work their way through the pre-season games, and we see some of the same old habits in their play that we have seen for the last couple of seasons, it’s fair to ask questions like: are all the issues the organization faces really the fault of the coach?
If a coach and his staff remind players over and over again to do something, is it not on the players to make the effort to get the job done? Most of us would agree that defense is a team thing. Every guy on the ice has to do their job, and work together within the structure laid out for them. They can’t just do it half-assed, or ‘sort of’, or when the mood strikes. Being conscientious about defense is mostly a matter of awareness, willingness and effort- not necessarily skill.
Now, we can certainly say it’s up to the coach to insist/demand that players do their job. But it’s not as if the players are in the dark and have no clue what’s expected of them. I don’t really buy that. Just as I did not believe that Ron Wilson “had no system”. He had a system; the players simply became disinterested in doing what was asked of them.
At what point, when players refuse to play the system expected of them, does it stop being the coach’s fault? Eventually the team didn’t play for Wilson, and while there are a number of new players here, obviously, this group did not play well enough, consistently enough, for Carlyle last year.
Their early work—seeing how many shots they were allowing in the pre-season, at least until the loss on Monday night against what was essentially Detroit’s AHL team—suggests they may still be unwilling to do the work required to be a top team in the admittedly middlish Eastern Conference.
My point is not to dump on the players (or the coach) before the season even starts, but let’s be honest: most Leaf fans seem to want Carlyle gone, so we are about to embark on what could be a self-fulfilling prophecy. The players likely sense the same thing. They know Nonis and Carlyle both saw their wings clipped when their respective assistants were let go this past summer. So they know that, hey, a four-game losing streak and the coach is gone.
A new coach will always be a breath of fresh air, eh? If the old coach was a taskmaster, the new coach will be a “player’s coach”. Everyone will say he’s easy to play for and great to talk to. If the guy just fired was easy going, the new guy will be demanding and the players will say, “that’s exactly what we need, some structure and discipline…”.
It’s been this way forever in sports.
Bottom line, for me, I want to see the players be accountable. They’ve proven they can get coaches fired, be it head coaches or assistant coaches. But when will they stop blaming others for years of mediocrity and look in the mirror and say, “I’m part of the problem here…I need to be better at both ends of the rink”.
Accountability is a big word in sports these days, but I’m not sure what it means sometimes. Players only sound accountable when they say it’s too bad the old coach got fired. “We should have played better. It’s not his fault…” is the old dodge.
Similarly, how often do players say after a lousy game, “that wasn’t acceptable.” But what does that really mean? Those same players were on the ice when they had a chance to make a difference, to set a different tone and actually be accountable—but often the ones speaking are responsible for the lousy performance, too.
So yes, by all means we can criticize the coach for his failings, intractibility and perceived errors in judgment. But at some point, professional athletes need to be “accountable” regardless of the system they are asked to play. If they basically keep playing the way they want to play, and make the same mistakes time and again, is that all on the coach?
This is not to absolve Carlyle, simply to say that the players have a responsibility in all this, too.
Hopefully this Maple Leaf squad spends time this week on their ‘getaway’ up north reflecting on what they, individually, can do to make a difference this season. From a players’ perspective, there is no excuse for not playing hard every night, regardless of the system—or who is behind the bench.