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Can Carlyle now do what Pat Quinn did in his first season behind the Leaf bench—but with different methods?

With a new National Hockey League season finally under way after the lockout, here are some recent VLM posts you might have missed while you were away:
  • What identity would you like to see the Leafs develop?
  • On finally setting Kadri free
And for those who may be tuning in to the "Leaf Matters" podcasts with myself and  Matteo Codispoti from We Want a Cup, if you are enjoying the shows, I invite you to take a moment to leave feedback on iTunes.

As I've mentioned before, we aren't trying to be mainstream media 'broadcasters'.  We are simply trying to provide an alternative for Maple Leaf and hockey fans: a show by Leaf fans, for Leaf fans.

Just as with VLM, listeners/readers won't always agree with us, but isn't that part of what's fun about being a fan?  We all have our own opinions but still pull for the same side, while watching and following  a sport we all grew up loving.

For those who don't have iTunes, one click and you can catch the various episodes via the Podalmighty Network.

We've been fortunate to attract some great guests for the show- and the season has just started.  Already we've chatted on "Leaf Matters" with '80s Leaf netminder Allan Bester, long-time player and coach Pat Quinn, former first-round pick Laurie Boschman, Mark Osborne from the Pat Burns Leaf team of the  early '90s and 1980s star winger Mirko Frycer.  We have also chatted with play-by-play voice Joe Bowen, the extremely popular "Down Goes Brown", Adam Proteau from The Hockey News and Kevin McGrann from the Toronto Star. I'm probably forgetting someone, but every guest has been tremendous.  The ex-Leafs clearly had (and still have) a deep pride around having played for the blue and white, which is so great to hear.  It makes you feel as though it has always been worth cheering for this team- and still is.


The initial euphoria of an opening-night win in Montreal will no doubt morph into a more measured response by many Leaf fans as we accept the fact that the Habs were just not very good on Saturday night.  The Leafs were not flawless by any means but they did enough, from the goal out, to walk away with a well-deserved two points against an arch-rival.  It wasn’t like beating the ’77 Habs, but hey, it was a nice win, for sure.

We all know it’s “early” and a tendency to over-state the importance of a solitary win has become part of a Leaf fan’s trademark in recent years (or is that 45 years?).  Surely if we beat the not-quite-as-hated Sabres on Monday night, we won’t be planning parades, but we will be talking playoffs in these parts.  It’s just the way it is—and generally speaking, the way we are as Leaf fans.

If nothing else, we live in hope.  The Boston Red Sox finally won those two World Series, right, after decades of disappointment?  (Let’s not mention the Cubs…) You gotta believe.

In any event, what has crossed my mind is that teams often get a nice mental “bump” when a new coach comes to town.  The short-term jump in performance is as old as sports, I'm sure.  It seems to happen all the time. And Carlyle is indeed the "new" guy right now.

Usually this is the way it works:  a “player’s coach” replaces the tough task-master, and a disciplinarian takes over from a coach who was supposedly too easy on the players.  So in Wilson being replaced by the even crustier Carlyle, we are expected to see a response from the team.  That’s not a surprise.  (I tend to discount the team’s record under Carlyle at the end of last season.  That ship had sailed. He's still the "new" voice here.)  And for one night, we did—albeit under peculiar circumstances (after a lengthy lockout, no exhibition games, against a very mediocre team, etc.).

The expectation is that we will move from “run and gun” (or at least something proximate to that) under Wilson to a much tighter, defensive approach where each player is given a very specific role and is expected to play it—to the hilt.  (I should hasten to add that it's not exactly as though Wilson did not preach hard work or defense.  All coaches do, and he certainly did.  We shouldn't forget that.)  The fact that this is not exactly a star-studded lineup—and includes very few guys with lots of experience who are fully secure of their jobs—means that we should anticipate that players will do their best to abide by Carlyle’s demands. They want to stay in the lineup.

Is the roster that much different than what we had a year ago under Wilson? Well, yes and no.  There are some tweaks, of course.  The first two forward lines are identical, and that’s not a huge shock, given the relative "success" of those two lines. (I’m still not sure that “top-six” will be good enough, but we can debate that another day.)  The so-called “bottom-six” is where we see some new faces:  McClement, van Riemsdyk, Komarov and of course, Kadri. Each of those guys has something to prove this season—to themselves and of course to the Leafs or their former teams.

The back end looks a bit different with Scrivens in net and newcomer Kostka playing significant minutes already.  When Gardiner returns something will have to shake loose.  It won’t be Phaneuf, Gunnarsson or Liles.  Franson looked solid on opening night and I would be surprised if it was him, but who knows?  Maybe Komisarek, or Kostka slides up into the press box and one of Fraser or Holzer return to the Marlies.

All this said, it would be hard to argue that this is a massively over-hauled roster from last April.  But there are some adjustments, and for the moment, they appear to be positive additions.

I guess what I’m getting at today is a new coach usually brings an element of change in mindset, even if the roster is relatively familiar  And when change behind the bench creates a renewed environment and a positive outcome, that’s obviously a very good thing.

Many of us recall that  when Pat Quinn took over before the 1998-’99 season, he replaced one of the nice guys in the hockey world, Mike Murphy.  Everyone loved “Murph” in Toronto.  He had been a fine NHL player and worked as an assistant coach with the Rangers (when they won the Cup in ’94, I believe).  He had an OK roster in Toronto but one with somewhat limited high-end talent, or so he seemed to feel.  I don't want to misrepresent Murphy's thinking, but his view appeared to be that the Leafs needed to focus on defense and play a trap-oriented, shutdown game to win.  That approach, in the end, while well-intentioned and very much in line with what many successful NHL teams were trying, did not work effectively enough here in Murphy’s two years as head coach for the Leafs to make the playoffs.

When Quinn came in, he changed the philosophy and approach (and yes, attitude) around significantly.  A new goaltender in Curtis Joseph certainly helped, but Quinn’s view was that he could take much the same roster as Murphy had and to a certain extent, let them go.  He wanted them to play hard, be defensively responsible, but also wanted them to play some offense, have flow in their game, and create problems for the other team trying to contain the blue and white.

That squad immediately found its confidence—and its legs—and often played inspired hockey, all the way to making the “final four” in Quinn’s first season, despite having three rookies on the blueline.  The “system” of play had changed, for sure, but most importantly, Quinn had helped the players change their thinking.  He opened the doors to creativity, and the players responded for the most part.

Not insignificantly, they had re-discovered their confidence, individually and as a team.

Quinn was able to foster that approach for the next several years, always making the playoffs in the pre-cap era (and yes, I acknowledge that we should have expected that when we had the money to spend), some years having more playoff success than others.  (Another “final four” appearance in 2002 stands out—we were so close to making the finals again that spring.  It still stings.)

Fast-forward to the present, and Carlyle, another former Leaf defenseman, like Quinn, is doing something entirely different.  He is demanding a much tighter, defensive focus.  He wants a physical style (though we certainly played with a tough, physical edge when Quinn was in charge, too), and a very high “compete level”.  It’s not just that Carlyle feels it’s necessary because the Leafs don’t have enough talent.  He was this way in Anaheim as well, and they won a Stanley Cup with Niedermayer and Pronger on the blueline and Giguere, a top goaltender at the time, in goal. This is how Carlyle believes good teams have to play to win consistently in the NHL.

What is the bottom line similarity, despite the obvious differences in “systems” employed by Quinn and Carlyle?

Yes, it’s every player “buying in” to the team approach and the system, but maybe more than anything it’s about confidence.  Quinn helped restore that invaluable mental trait to his hockey club in the late ‘90s, and it carried over until Quinn was removed from the GM’s portfolio and the team eventually went south because of poor roster choices made by the new GM.

I believe you can with either way.  You can play the old New Jersey trap, you can play a more hybrid  “system” like the Red Wings generally have all these years, or, yes, a more offensive approach.  No one wins without playing defense, of course, in today’s NHL.  You need goaltending and you have to be hard to play against. 

But regardless of the system, if you play with confidence, it makes a huge difference.  If Carlyle can turn this ship around, helped by a few roster changes, yes, it will be about systems, sure, but it will also be because this team has begun to believe in itself.  That’s what happened in the late ‘90s under Quinn.

We can hope it happens again.


  1. Michael,

    The biggest change that I hope Carlyle is able to implement from the Wilson tenure is that the players on this team need to be accountable, to him and to each other. The lackadaisical approach to play in our own zone needs to continue to be weeded out. Only one example sticks out from Saturday nights game. As something that has to end, solely because it infuriates me. On Montreals only goal, there were two Canadiens in front of the net. Dion Phaneuf, our captain, decides that with two of the opposition in front of the net, that this would be an opportune time to take a leisurely skate behind the net. Unacceptable.

    I did love Kadri's goal. The puck sure does seem to follow the guy around at times. He put a nice shot behind Price, given a little luck he could have had one or two more in that game. A nice start, lets keep it going against the Sabres. They played well today agains the Flyers, so our Leafs are in tough on Monday night. Go Leafs Go.

  2. Carlyle has that persona that suggest players will take him seriously. There are enough guys on the roster who are playing for their hockey lives- either a contract os staying in the league- so he has their attention.

    Whether the roster is truly good enough, we'll find out more in the weeks ahead. Thanks Jim.

  3. Nice read Michael. You know last season some would say the Leafs played the first half of the year with a lot of confidence. In essence, they actually started to believe in themselves so much that they started to forget the importance of playing a 2-way game. They got to the point where all they wanted to do was out-score their opponents. I don't believe for a minute that Wilson was promoting a "run and gun" offense, without stressing the importance of playing a 2-way game. The problem was the players got caught up in the forechecking and offensive pressure and neglected their defensive responsibilities. The fact Wilson did not get them back on track was a serious shortfall, and the 18-wheeler was allowed to go over the cliff.

    No doubt Carlyle will stress the importance of defense, but I think even his system still allows for offensive production when it presents itself. Going into this season I was worried he would apply a pure top-6 bottom-6 approach. The lineup against Montreal seemed to be more of a top-9 bottom-3 which I prefer. The line of Kadri-JVR-Komarov has some offensive punch, yet seemed to play well in both ends of the rink.

    Depending on the opposition, Carlyle may have to get the players to play a tighter more defensive game on some nights. Hopefully the players buy into this approach, and more importantly can effectively carry it out.

  4. I'm probably so old-fashioned, Don (TML_fan), that I've always believed any forward should be able to play a two-way game, and chip in offensively. This "top-six", etc. stuff we have to talk about is all modern-day lingo for me. (I have to use it so people don't think I'm completely out of touch!)

    Heck, when I was a kid in the '60s, Bob Pulford was, I suppose, a third-line center, behind Keon and Red Kelly. But on any given night, he was the best all-around Leaf forward- and played plenty of "minutes". It led to a Hall-of-Fame career.

    A long-winded way of responding and saying yes, I too hope Carlyle's "system" has enough flexibility that it also allows players to do what they do best. Given his success in his early days in Anaheim, I assume that's true.

    Thanks Don.

  5. As much as a new coach and new confidence, you gotta have the horses for the long haul, and whether we do or don't is the question to be answered this year. For example, most teams figured out how to limit the damage the Kessel/Lupul/Bozak line could inflict last year. Will they (and the coaches) be able to find new solutions this year? Kessel's two assists on the PP are heartening, but it'll be a few games before we know if that line can still be the threat it was for a good part of last year.
    Overall, I thought the D already look more confident than last year. Kostka looked like he was right at home, Komi and Franson both made some nice plays and hits. Only Gunner and Phaneuf looked a little out of sync to me. And that might be the effect (on Phaneuf at least) of playing 26+ minutes in the first game.
    Today's contract extension for Lupul was an interesting move. Because, as many of us said last year, the team needs player leadership, the player(s) who lift the team when needed. Will our new management continue to think Phaneuf is the one? We'll see how things look 10 games in.

  6. Interesting analogy. I wonder if a different Pat would be a better comparison though: Pat Burns took over a free-wheeling team coached by a veteran and reformed it into a lunch bucket gang with a young goalie. I've always thought that Nazem Kadri should model his game after another one of Don Cherry's favorites from that team ;-)

  7. Like you, Gerund O';, I've been around long enough to know that we should never make any real assessments until we are well into the season. Normally I'd say 20 games; this season, probably 10, as you mentioned.

    There are more questions than answers still, at this stage. Leadership is indeed one. But Carlyle has their attention. That much is clear.

  8. The Burns reference is fair, too, Anon. Kadri like Dougie, you say? Now that would be something...

  9. Both team and individual confidence certainly are key for success, but a working system can be key in building that confidence. A player who works within the framework of a functional system needs less time to think about his on-ice options than one doesn't have that luxury. As a result, the former player is likely to make fewer mistakes and play with more confidence as a result.

    Now, of course that varies from one player to the next, some just have better natural instincts than others. There's certainly nothing to be gained by putting your Crosbys or Malkins to a tight tactical leash, you'll just curb their effectiveness that way. But the vast majority of players are not in that class, and they will benefit from having more strict philosophy, as long as that philosophy comes from someone who both understands the game and has means of conveying that understanding.

    So in my belief, a good system will breed confidence, and a confident team will have their moments of flow. And when you run into a speed bump, as even the best of teams will, you can fall back into the basics and start building on that. A team without a plan will more likely just get caught in a downward spiral, as once the flow runs dry, a few good pep talks are not going to magically bring the confidence back.

    I don't know how well I'm presenting my point, but basically, when you get to the NHL level of hockey, players generally know what is expected of them. Having said that, in any line of work, people tend to do their jobs better when given certain specifics and parameters within which they should work. In hockey, where multiple people have to work as a unit, someone really has to coordinate that team effort. And in modern-day, top-level hockey, that really goes far beyond pep talks and chewing gum behind the bench.

    A good coach, and even coaching is more and more a team effort nowadays, will tell his players both the "why" and the "how" of it. The "why" being the inspirational part, and the "how" being his playing system.

    A long post, but hopefully (mostly) understandable.

  10. Fair point, Anon. Ottawa has certainly become a "natural" rival, and their fortunes appear to be on the upswing, setting up some interesting match-ups with the Leafs- and maybe a bit more intense hockey.

  11. I hear what you're saying, CGLN. And I agree, most players want to know their role, and want structure.

    It usually takes years before players tune a coach out. Carlyle eventually faced that music in Anaheim. But with a not-many-stars roster, his message should be followed for the next couple of seasons, at least.

  12. "Both Franson and Komisarek were skating extra after practice, we will see both Fraser and Holzer tonight."

    I saw better defence in Montreal, but there was still lots of running and gunning...lots of fast movment up the ice.

    I think Carlyle will be a little more offensive with this team over Anaheim. I believe he understands they are smaller and have lots of speed and he will play them away from their weakness and towards their strengh.

  13. As you suggest, DP, Carlyle knows he has some players who can finish, so hopefully his approach will allow for the offensive guys to do what they do well...

  14. True, Michael, and we really haven't seen much of Carlyle thus far, and he (like any NHL coach) had no real chance to prepare his team for this season. Hopefully he has watched as much hockey from across the world in the meantime, because it's a rare game where there's absolutely nothing to be learned from, even if the player quality is not comparable to NHL.

    It would be interesting, as a side note, to hear your thoughts as to how ready NHL is for another European head coach? Alpo Suhonen had an unsuccesful stint at the Blackhawks, but he had been years removed from hockey before he returned to coaching in NHL. He wasn't the best coach in Finland at the time, and certainly not the best of all time, when he got his chance.

    Hockey, as a local professional sport, has gained some foothold over the years, and there are good, knowledgeable people overseas as well. It's not limited to playing talent. Of course, the great overseas playing talent is always more welcome as there are more roster spots available than there are coaching spots, but would the fans be ready? Probably not in Toronto or Montreal, but there are smaller markets with less media pressure out there.

  15. It's a good - and very fair - question, CGLN.

    Wasn't Suhonen an assistant with the Leafs (Murphy, then with Quinn) before moving on to the Jets, or have I got that backwards? I sense he was recognized as a solid coach, but being the Head coach here, when you are not from Canada or the United States, is indeed a major challenge.

    Would players listen? It really would depend on the 'presence' of the given coach, I would imagine.

    Individuals like Roger Nielson (and others) bridged the perception gap years ago in the area of "non-players"- that is, guys who never "played the game" at any significant level, but were able to win the players over as coach since they were respected because of their knowledge of the game and their ability to teach and develop effective tactical approaches.

    So a successful coach from Finland (where you reside) or any other hockey-playing nation in Europe would certainly have the credentials, regardless of whether they were a former professional player or not.

    Soccer, as you know, long ago stopped worrying about where coaches are "from". Teams (and countries) look for the very best people they can find. Eventually, hockey will be the same, I would think.

  16. Suhonen was an assistant for the Leafs, yes. And Jarmo Kekäläinen was an assistant GM for the Blues after being a part-time scout for the Senators, where he was, at least partially responsible for picking Marian Hossa, as an example. And yes, the Finnish point is an important one, as the most foreign coaches in KHL have been Finnish over the past few years. Some have been more succesful than others. But it's a rare Finnish person who speaks Russian at all, or even Swedish beyond the very basic level, and Swedish is our second official language.

    Now, I'm not suggesting the Finnish are somehow superior in the tactical tenets of hockey, but we would have never won the two World Championships if there wasn't the ever-present admiration and dedication to the sport that we truly have. We can't pick our national team for the World Championships from the people who got left out from the NHL playoffs. The personnel's just not there. However, we are, relatively speaking, after Canada, the second-most dedicated country in the world in terms of the sport. That's just counting the registered players per capita. Our hockey league draws the biggest audiences every year. Teemu Selänne has probably been our most celebrated sporting personality over the past 20 years or so. But I think the Canadian fans like him too.

    It's just funny to think, that people like
    Bengt-Åke Gustafsson, from Sweden, or Jukka Jalonen, from Finland, have never been tendered offers from the NHL. Seems that it's easier to hire Adam Oates, who was just about as devastating a playmaker there ever was, and just expect him to gain the respect of all the players, because he "played at that level".

    That's how NHL has operated for decades. Maybe somebody should break the chains?

  17. It seems that, with any kind of long-held, built-in bias, it will take yet more time to break down the barriers. Hopefully it will happen in the NHL, CGLN, and Finnish coaches will get the opportunities they deserve.

  18. I'm really not advocating for Finnish coaches, Michael, believe me. Someone like Uwe Krupp, who had a fine playing career in NHL might be a much easier starting point. He did good work with the German national team, until it became clear that the German league wasn't going to cut down on mercenaries, and the German kids be damned in the process. I don't know if he's still there, but his German team played fine hockey at one point. I can't imagine his passion would have waned, and I think he would get a fair pass from the Avs fans.

    Now, I think Finland could have two or three coaches who could make it in the right circumstances, but still, NHL franchises might be well served to do a bit of headhunting outside of Canada.