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The subtle little things I’m seeing from Randy Carlyle…

Given the backdrop to the current Toronto Maple Leaf season—a history of no recent playoff appearances; a sudden change in the GM’s office; a youthful, limited roster; uncertain goaltending prospects—could we reasonably have expected anything better than the record we now have, 10 games into the truncated 2012-’13 NHL season?

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.


  1. MIchael,

    Nice work. Is it fair to say that so far, you see him as the anti-Ron Wilson?

  2. Fair question, Jim. Not exactly, but I see your point. I think Wilson was probably more acerbic with the media than with his own players, but while I won't say I exactly find Randy refreshing from a media perspective, he at least doesn't play games or come across constantly as caustic.

    I guess none of us on the outside ever really know what kind of relationship coaches have with their players, but it strike me that what Carlyle is doing on the bench is pretty positive.

  3. I think Randy Carlyle is a good coach and will be for many years, just not for a team like the Leafs. You mentioned "the potential of young players like Gardiner, Kadri, Frattin, van Riemsdyk and of course, young Morgan Rielly... Kessel, Lupul, Phaneuf". All known for their offence.

    We talk about his time in Anaheim with a good all round defensive team, so his style was just what that team needed. He was a defense first coach and a defense first team, so everyone was playing to their strengths.

    On the Leafs it seems to me that he is trying to change what the players are, and therefore taking away some of their strengths. I'm not saying to disregard solid defence and back checking and the whole lot, but you need eggs to make an omlet, and for this Leafs team to be defense oriented, we need other eggs.

    We all know this team can score (or could) so a different type of coach would serve this team better in my mind.

  4. I hear what you're saying, portuguese leaf. I guess the question becomes, can Carlyle adjust to this roster or does he even think he has to? Can he preach defensive commitment while allowing for offensive creativity?

    For me, his desire to encourage the players has been a nice surprise. He doesn't present as the mean task-master, more a guy who is demanding, yes, but also trying to connect with his players.

  5. So far, I like Carlyle. I think he's very clear about what he expects from each player, and communicates it to them. And I think he's doing a good job of using the strengths of the players he inherited to their best advantage, given that they may not be perfect for what he has in mind. As we watch Kostka, Holzer, Fraser all get their shot with the big team, not to mention Frattin, Kadri, Komarov and McClement, and as we watch the defence make fewer mistakes than we saw last year, it feels like Randy could really achieve something here. Both our goalies are looking better, as well.
    The two things we have to remember - this is still Burke's team, with many of his draft choices starting to come on line, and Dallas Eakins is doing one heck of a job preparing the Marlies' players for Carlyle's system.

  6. You're right when you say this is not Nonis' team- yet, though he did help Carlyle by moving out Lombardi and Connolly, two talented but older guys who weren't quite Carlyle's type of player. That has paved the way for playing some younger guys.

    It's early and the jury is out on Carlyle, and Nonis, too, Gerund O'. But I think the record is about what we could hope for!

  7. Hi Michael,

    Back in High school, our football team was in my opinion stacked in comparison with the other schools. I was a rookie and starting defensive back and special teams. I was also the second string tight end. Our record at the end of the season was 1-9. One evening I saw my head coach at a pro game and we spoke briefly. He told to me to observe what the professionals were doing and that's what I should do to.

    "just watch him"

    That was all the coaching I had the whole year. The next year, pretty much everyone was gone and we had 4 wins because we had a new coach. We were still pretty awful but at least we knew our role and had a game plan.

    I am not saying football coaching is the same as hockey as there are a lot less creativity and variations in the play. That said, it has huge influence on the team. It is the center of guidance during game play. When we are exerting at our maximum physical endurance, strategy is an afterthought unless we have a game plan. We don't typically think our way well when stressed thus coaching fills in the necessary gap.

    I never liked Wilson's coaching style because to me his style was indicative of his personality which was; I do it my way and you will be the one that must adapt. The problem with this scenario was that the Leafs never had the complete personnel to dictate the play. His was an attacking game plan where it ends up being high risk high reward. The lack of defensive game plan when the opposition break out or counter attack often result in players running around. There were no Grant Fuhr to play the oilers game plan. That is why we saw a continuation of blown leads when the opposition adapted. This is because the Leafs are forced to play defensively the latter half to protect the lead. An inability to do it well because of poor defensive concepts or competence often resulted in losses.

    Like you, I am still not sure about Carlyle but at least there appear to be a sense of structure now. The game is fluid, teams are more competitive and will adapt as it proceeds. A coach who is willing to adapt, match lines and also a calming influence will likely to succeed more. Something that I do see in Carlyle but never in Wilson; a coach who refused to use what he has been given and use it to it's fullest to win. Nothing wrong with a trap is you only have 1 or 2 guns available.

  8. Excellent post, Lukas. The word you used that stuck with me is "structure". Not to suggest Wilson's teams did not have structure, but clearly Carlyle is working with the roster he has and trying to inch out as many wins as he can, however he can.

    As you said, teams are constantly adjusting, and opponents will no doubt study Carlyle's Leafs and find ways to break them down. The Leafs will have to do the same. That's professional sports nowadays. Adjustments and counter-adjustments.

    I'm not a trap guy, but if the Leafs are reduced to playing that "system" to try and win, that's what we'll see. Thanks Lukas.

  9. Well the Leafs are in Winnipeg. I just ran into Mike Komisarek at lunch time. Being out west, that is the first actual Maple Leaf that I have ever met or talked to.

  10. I am not a trap guy either but I like winning more. I don't doubt Wilson had his own defined play but I don't think he was willing or was able to adapt with the nuances or in game 'adjustments' required to be consistent all because of his stubborn refusal to do so. You nailed it with the professional sport adjustment-counter-adjustment observation. Nowhere is this more obvious than the NFL when you see teams come back on a consistent basis after half time.

    This is no different than then NHL but only at a faster pace. This is where coaching and practice comes in. You have to have more then one game plan at any given time. The ability to have in game adjustments when warranted, the finger on the pulse sensing who is matching up well shift by shift, the willingness to change as necessary. Maybe the Leafs simply lack the personnel to execute consistently but I am encouraged that Carlyle is willing to adjust even though I still think he plays Kotsa and Phaneuf too much given their ability.

  11. My guess is that Komisarek is a good person, a real professional. Hope it was a pleasant exchange, DP. (How's the weather out your way? The coldest I've ever been in my life was on a business trip that took me to Winnipeg in January about 20 or so years ago. I dressed like a Toronto guy and they had to tell me no one cared about business attire at the time of year!)

  12. You're so right, Lukas. Hockey is so much about adjustments, and that's why being a good "bench coach" is in fact key. These guys need to be able to spot stuff that most of us can't- and right away. Who's struggling, who's hot, who can't get away from their check, and a hundred other things in the midst of a fast-paced game.

  13. "Hope it was a pleasant exchange, DP."

    It was quick. Just a "Thanks buddy" sort of thing.

    I just recognized him walking toward me among the crowd in the tunnels downtown. He was probably walking to practice at the MTS centre, which is close to the hotel.

    I think Kadri was about 15 steps behind trying to hide in touque pulled down low.I didn't bother him. I didn't want to look like a crazy person. They were probably just trying to get to practice without attracting attention.

    It's warm in Winnipeg today... -13 Celcius. On the weekend it was -31 and about half a mile from my house somebody froze to death on Saturday.

    I wear a suit and tie every day, but I have an elegant wool overcoat to go over my suit. It's super thick, insulated and goes down almost to my ankles. You learn a few tricks living here. On cold days people look at that big thick coat with envy.

  14. Good article. I also remember Carlyle's two abbreviated seasons with the Leafs as a player. He was pretty awful in his first year, but came into his own at the end of his second year, especially in the playoffs when Borje Salming was injured. The Leafs upset the heavily favoured Islanders and advanced to the final four for the first time since 1967. Gregory's decision to trade Carlyle was based on Roger Neilson's wish list and he got Dave Burrows in return. I was excited by the deal but Burrows was a huge disappointment, the Leafs didn't take the next step, and Carlyle went on to be a solid defenceman for 16 more seasons.

  15. -31 is serious cold, DP. But you know how to deal with it. Nothing like experience...

  16. Our memories are very much in synch, Anon. Carlyle didn't start off terribly well (conditioning, among other issues, I seem to recall...) but he came on strong as you mentioned later on. Yes, Burrows was the guy Neilson wanted. It's a shame. Burrows rarely played up to the high standard he had established in Pittsburgh, or at least our perception of how he played. Solid player, for sure, but not exactly what we were hoping for- especially since Carlyle went on to a long career. Burrows is one of many solid defensemen over the years that never quite played as well here as elsewhere (Brad Maxwell and Larry Murphy come to mind)...and Carlyle was another good young defenseman we let go...

    1. I'd forgotten about Maxwell's brief tenure with the Leafs. A few others in that category include Robert Picard, Jeff Finger, Rick Lanz and Tom Kurvers. Let's hope that Dion Phaneuf can pick up his game or he may be added to that list.

  17. The Leafs' poor home/strong road record thusfar, aside from the standard, nebulus rationales (ie."home-nerves", visitors pumped-to-play here), would indicate poor line-matching...Maybe tougher opposition @ home vs. the road until now in the young season.

  18. Yes, I remember being very excited when I found out Maxwell had been acquired. But he never played like the high-end defenseman he had been for years in Minnesota.

    Picard had been a high first round pick, right? And yes, Lanz had played well for the Canucks. Thanks Anon.

  19. Sorry Michael, I am getting late with posting my comments these days.

    I wonder a bit about Ron Wilson. He was acerbic with the media of course. But he seemed to have a little bit of rapport with some of his guys on twitter if I recall correctly. I remember a few exchanges between he and Colby Armstrong, like banter. Maybe I am misremembering.

    I think Wilson's problems in Toronto were as was alluded to above by yourself and Lukas. He had a system, and he stuck to that system. Of course, I don't think it was the right system – there was offense but not a strong solid defence or goaltending that could minimize the impact of mistakes or the quick opposition opportunities that come from playing run-and-gun. A refusal to adapt then pretty much seals the results.

    I think Carlyle also has a system. you don't earn a rep as a tough coach and a defensive-minded one without having your teams play that way. But, I think there are significant differences we're seeing, to sort of reiterate what your post said Michael.

    1. Carlyle seems willing to adapt. He has said he is still evaluating.
    Yes many people feel Kostka plays too many minutes. Perhaps Carlyle sees that also, a slight wearing down, so Kostka's minutes have scaled back a bit, he's not always 1st PP, he's been paired with someone else a bit too.
    He's also rotated Franson, Komisarek and Fraser in, with decent results.
    He's adapted his lines as injuries dictate.

    2. Not only is he willing to adapt, he seems willing to teach. We've heard how Kadri seems to respond to him. If we go back to the old saw, you can teach defence. Carlyle has a system, he knows it will take time for these guys to learn it. He's communicative because he knows if he wants someone to change something, or repeat something, he needs to tell them that. That's not to say I know Wilson does not communicate. But it's just not as easy to teach guys to run and gun – not easy because for the most part it's "go and create out there".

    I hope that what we are seeing is truly the case here. If so, this could be a good team sooner than later I think.

  20. Thanks Mark. Well said, as always.

    I should be clear here. I think Ron Wilson was a very good NHL coach. You don't last as long as he did, and have the international (and NHL) success that he did without knowing what you're doing. My issue with Wilson was largely how how came across. It just was so unnecessary. He had the best job and the world and it always seemed so painful. (And yes, you are likely right, Mark, Wilson no doubt had a relationship with his players, whatever the external perception might have been...)

    We can argue about his system and his apparent unwillingness to make adjustments, but I'd be out of my depth pretty quickly discussing "systems" of play.

    I'll say it's early with Carlyle, but those early signs, at least, point to patience, no 'rushing to judgement'. He knows what he has, and he knows it's not enough to contend right now. But he is pushing as far as he can, I sense.