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Good goalies make good coaches: the never-ending Randy Carlyle debate

That "headline" today is not “news”.  It has always been thus.  If you have great, or even just “very good” goaltending, chances are your team will do well and the coach will have be successful in the minds of fans.  If you have poor goaltending, it's likely your team will struggle and ultimately fail badly, the coach will be fired and fans will see him as a flop.

I guess it is obvious and quite cliched to say that it's not always black and white when it comes to most things in life.  So when it comes to Randy Carlyle, a lightning rod these days in Leafland, it is perhaps not that surprising to those who visit VLM that my view is a tad nuanced on this subject.  To me, our coach is neither the "idiot" some Leaf fans want to suggest, nor is he Toe Blake, Al Arbour, Punch Imlach (the legendary Leaf coach, right) and Scotty Bowman all wrapped into one.

The number-crunchers, for example, seem to vehemently dislike Carlyle him behind the Leaf bench. While I try to understand that position, I think we're really letting the players off the hook if we lay any and all blame for the team's  at times imperfect play at Carlyle's doorstep.

Let's ask ourselves these simple questions:

  • Do we have elite goaltending?  (Be honest, I mean top of the league, not just pretty good...)
  • Do we have an elite defense corps?
  • Do we have a truly elite forward group?

I don't know about you, but my answer to the above questions is: no.  Not even close.  I mean, we have one what I would call 'plus' (skills and work ethic beyond the NHL norm for pretty good players)  defensemen, maybe (maybe...) five or six "plus" forwards (again, better than just OK to pretty good NHL players in their role) and while I love Reimer, I would hardly say he is at the top of the league, whatever his "stats" may suggest.

So in my mind, while I have said for years the East is very weak, at least the Leafs are in the playoff-  and Carlyle, in my view,  deserves some credit.

Without doing any in-depth research, my sense of the number of NHL coaches over the years who have had really good goaltending and have had success (and were/are seen as “good” coaches) is...well...lots.

On the other hand, the number of coaches of have lousy goaltending and have success and are seen as “good” coaches”?  Basically….none.

This sort of leads into the current thinking in some quarters that the Leafs have only had success this season (as opposed to last season, when things hit the skids in the second half) because the goaltending has been OK to really good a fair bit of this season.  And in line with that, the theory goes, the Leafs are winning a lot based on 'puck luck' and good bounces (and there is some truth in this) despite being outplayed many nights, so the team’s achievements (modest as they are) have little if anything to do with Carlyle's coaching acumen.

I don't quite know what to think about that thesis, except to suggest:  see above.  In my experience, virtually all coaches look much smarter when their goalie is really good.  Scotty Bowman never won a Stanley Cup with lousy goaltending, either in Montreal or Detroit.  In fact, he had some pretty good (but maybe not good enough?) goaltending during his years in Buffalo but did not come close to winning a Cup there in the '80s.  In Buffalo, he was considered an absolute failure.  Was he a genius in Montreal, a bum in Buffalo, and a genius again in Pittsburgh and Detroit?

Great players who are highly skilled and also committed—along with great goaltending—makes for great coaches.

That said, coaches add something to a successful cocktail as well.  All these guys who reach the NHL level as coach have something special. They all “know what they’re doing”.  The x’s and o’s may differ a bit, the so-called 'system' may be this or that, but it’s about getting guys to play hard, follow the plan and putting particular players in a position where they can have success—and in turn help the team have success.

If you can get every individual on your roster to play to their potential, it's gold.  Throw in outstanding goaltending, and you’ll generally do OK.

I’m all for fans having fun thinking this or that line combination would be swell, but c’mon, do any of even the most self-proclaimed sophisticated fans—even those with the neat computers that crank out the super-advanced stats—really believe they see, know or understand anywhere near as much as someone who has either played or coached (or both) the game for years at the highest level?

Do we honestly believe Randy Carlyle is not aware of “zone charts”, face-off statistics, trends, player tendencies, data, match-ups and all that stuff?  That he stubbornly ignores certain ideas or possibilities because he is a narrow-minded guy clinging to old-time views?

This guy is on top of things.  He watches his players and the flow of the game like a hawk.  He has a highly-qualified staff reviewing game films and breaking down every conceivable scenario.  (So did Ron Wilson, who also was not a lousy coach.  I just loathed his public demeanour which was too bad, because by all accounts he is a very funny and engaging guy...)  I’m sure Carlyle has contemplated every roster shuffle and forward or “d” line configuration possible.  Yet we sometimes seem to think he just doesn’t see things, or is unwilling to adapt or change.

He may be "old-school", whatever that means.  He may be stubborn.  I don't doubt that.  But do we really and truly believe this guy does not want to win every night—even more than the most devoted fan?

I caution those of us who long for Dallas Eakins to take over behind the Leaf bench.   Eakins certainly has done a fine job with the Marlies.  Many of his “graduates” have adjusted nicely to NHL life.

But he has never coached a day as a head guy in the NHL.  (Which may be a good thing, I realize—fresh ideas and all that…).  But coaching a “development” squad is very different—as are the expectations—from coaching an NHL team.  Especially in this market.

(Of course AHL coaches can have NHL success.  There is a long history of that.  Coaches have to come from somewhere.  I'm simply saying there is no guarantee that because Eakins has done a nice job in the AHL he will be a winning coach in the NHL.  Maybe yes, maybe no.)

Remember Paul Maurice?  The most engaging guy fans and the Toronto media ever met.  He had a great NHL resume, was fired in Carolina, and then took over with the Marlies.  He was the obvious coach-in-waiting for when the Leafs fired Pat Quinn, which everyone  saw coming because John Ferguson Jr. wanted “his own guy” from day one.

Maurice, just like Eakins, was an excellent “teacher”- personable, great with the media, and superb with young players.  He was a  modern-day 'communicator', seemingly perfect for the Leafs and this market.

Two years later he was a failure as Leaf coach.

I’ll go back to my opening comments:  if the Leafs had had great goaltending when Maurice was coaching the Leafs, he may still be here.  But he sure looked like an ordinary coach without excellent netminding.  Was he part of the failure?  Of course.  He had limited talent on the roster, but also could not get them to play hard enough, smart enough, often enough, to win games. But the goaltending was also not good enough, enough of the time, to help him be successful.

Eakins will only be a genius coach in Toronto if he has superb goaltending.  He may have all kinds of other fine qualities as a coach.  I’m sure he does.  But I know Carlyle does—and he has actually won at this level, albeit with a much better team that what he has now in Toronto.

Like Carlyle or anyone else, once Eakins is behind the Leaf bench, the honeymoon will end.  Eakins (or anyone else’s) “flaws” as a coach will be exposed and he will no longer be the knight in shining armour waiting to ascend to the throne.

Then he, or any other new coach, will be judged as harshly as every Leaf coach before him. (I just hope whoever it is gets a bit more time than Carlyle has, which is less than a full NHL season, before the carping starts.)  Personally, I don't believe that Carlyle has had "nothing" to do with the Leaf record this season.

There's always more to NHL team success than goaltending, of course, but let's put it this way:  if any Leaf coach has poor goalkeeping, he will fail.  If he has great goaltending, he’ll look awfully smart—and will no doubt be pretty “successful”.


  1. I think your right Michael, good goaltending is always a way to make a coach or tean look good.

    Just like when a team goes bad it's not all the coaches fault neither is it a coachs greatness that makes a team good. It is a big great aglamtion of all factors. That's why it is a team game. The great thing about hockey is it so much a team game and that is probably what makes it so hard to quantify. Where one guy says it's the coach, another says it's the goaltender and yet a third will say no it's the forwards scoring more. It's a team game.

    Personally, I think we have one elite defenseman in Phanuef. He has been outstanding the last 2-25 games in fact after his first 10 games he has been amongst the best in the game bar none. He is now 5th in points, third in icetime, 2nd in powerplay points. He is becoming a true number one guy in all respects and I was never a Phanuef guy, but I am fast becoming one.

    As for forwards I think based on this year we have two. Kadri and Kessel. To really be elite Kadri will have to repeat his effort but he has been very good. Kessel has been pretty good all year. Much more backchecking and a lot less floating this year. Their play speaks for itself. Lupul can't be elite he is injured to much to be counted on.

    As for goaltending based on this year alone I would consider Reimer to be in the top 5 goalies this year. Like Kadri to be truly elite he will have to repeat again next year, but I am a true believer in Reimer. His numbers speak for themselves. We can debate how much help he gets from the new Carlyle system (we have pretty extensively the last while) but much like good coaching is influenced by good goaltending, good goaltending is influenced by team play as well. I wonder how good Brodeur would have been in another city besides New Jersey. Or for that matter Dryden if he hadn't played on some of the best teams of all time in his short but awesome career but rather on the sad sack Maple Leafs.

    To sum up I think we have 4 elite players with hopefully another one in Reilly (time will tell but I hear nothing but good things). The basis of an outstanding team is here now we see how it will go. I expect big things in the near future. I say cup contender in 2 years and I have said that for awhile.

  2. Thanks Willbur. We see a lot of the same things.

    Just to clarify one thing: when I cited "plus" players above, I would not necessarily consider only truly elite guys in that category. They have to be better than just OK to pretty good NHL players for me to assess them as "plus" and the Leafs have more than three or four of those, though I don't disagree that the number of elite players is smaller, for sure. Thanks Willbur.

  3. Another good podcast. I listened to it while watching the Capitals/Habs and Jets/Sabres on split screen.

    As per the podcast...We do have prospects...and I think we are above average in that department. Maybe Colborne makes the permanent jump next year and Blacker the year after.

    "Good goalies make good coaches"

    I am going to turn this on its head. I think good coaches make good goalies. I think Carlyle is demanding more from the team in front of his goalies.

    Carlyle will sit you if you make a mistake that hangs a goalie out to dry. Just ask Grabo how his seat was in third period last night.

    I also think Carlyle is doing a better job of managing his goalies. He is letting Reimer play lots while he is playing well.

    Remember how Wilson pulled the Monster while he was hot...crazy? Carlyle isn't making that mistake.

  4. I agree that Carlyle is demanding more of the entire roster, DP. And because there are consequences, it seems to be making a difference.

    Giguere was talking last night about teammates with the Avalanche who are more concerned with their upcoming Vegas vacation than playing right now. Carlyle has not allowed the mentality of years of being a non-playoff team to seep into the dressing room and negatively impact this year's squad. They have over-achioeved so far, or at least close to it. And good for them- and Carlyle.

    As you say, there may be more help on the way. We'll see over the next couple of years. Thanks DP.

  5. Ah, I see you had my subject in mind already yesterday... I wonder if you've taken a stick to a hornet's nest here, guess we'll see in the responses!

    This particular paragraph says it all for me:

    "...All these guys who reach the NHL level as coach have something special. They all “know what they’re doing”. The x’s and o’s may differ a bit, the so-called 'system' may be this or that, but it’s about getting guys to play hard, follow the plan and putting particular players in a position where they can have success—and in turn help the team have success."

    Coaching is so much more than doing the obvious and memorizing plays. And I certainly wouldn't second guess the guy who has years of experience in the league, a cup ring etc.... Especially when he's winning! But that's the argument I'd get from some circles: his experience and record mean nothing, his over or underuse of specific players is what makes him good or not. It's just such a strange argument, and for whatever reason, the current team record is credited to individuals whose possession stats are more palatable to some.

    I don't know Carlyle from Adam as a person, and have no reason to put him on a pedestal. But the guy is winning, the team is playing for him, he hasn't been caught eating babies, so... Why all the hate? Is it just because Orr gets too much ice time? There must be a reason for that too, and I see nothing in our record so far that suggests I shouldn't trust Carlyle's reasons for this approach. Maybe I wouldn't do it that way. But who cares what I would do--I'm not a coach!

    Well done on a great post Michael, it is timely and appreciated.

  6. I'm with you that Randy Carlyle is not an idiot. The people who say he is, or is missing something that to them is obvious, are just out of it. If these people know so much about everything and everyone hockey, they should be NHL/AHL/OHL coaches. Did Carlyle steal their jobs?

    That being said, we shouldn't think Carlyle isn't stubborn or old fashioned or narrow minded. People with much more important jobs were, are and will continue to be, so why cant't a hockey coach? Again, I don't think HE is.

    As for the roster, I've said before that we have on our team only 1 guy who could be an elite player on any other team in the league. Maybee 1/4 of our guys are above average or very good NHLers.

    Everyone hepls out everyone elses stats, coaches included. If we keep buildng (and not trading oranges for oranges), we´ll be just fine.

  7. Thank you PF. Yes, I had been thinking on this subject for some time, and your earlier post was an added impetus for me to post my thoughts. We see this particular part of the hockey world the same way, but we both know many others do not.

    And, at the end of the day, that's OK. Hopefully Leaf fans, regardless of their perspective on various issues, can simply enjoy the good moments when the team has some success. Thanks for visiting, PF.

  8. Your point is well made, portuguese leaf, that all kinds of people in various walks of life, young or old, can be narrow-minded, stubborn, old-fashioned, whatever. Maybe Carlyle is. Maybe he isn't. I can only surmise. That's all anyone can do.

    From what I can "see" he has evolved as a coach. But again, I did not follow his career in the minors or Anaheim closely, so what do I know? All I can say is he seems to be getting a lot out of certain players most nights, with a couple of notable exceptions. And he knows the people he isn't "reaching". But the season is not over yet.

    Thanks portuguese leaf. Big game tonight.

  9. Good post, Michael, thanks. I think that you made a telling point that bears repeating. We as Canadians think we know hockey in and out, and truth be told we know our game pretty well, obviously some more than others. It's terrific fun that we have (and share) our opinions, that's what being a fan is all about, and a lot of those opinions are "informed" opinions. However, as you implied, we have to be honest, at the very least once in a while when we look in our own mirror - do we really think that we can come close to the experience and the knowledge that a Carlyle brings to the game? We have a successful PRO coach who is doing his best to get us a winner, and at least from the outside seems to be doing so in good faith and in a generally acceptable way - he is approachable, explains himself and apparently makes his expectations known to the players and follows up on those expectations (positively or negatively). Gosh, he even confessed to easing up on the players a while back, hardly the actions of a rigid old-timer. This is NOT to say we can't disagree with him, in fact we might be right once in a while (!!!), but the hate thing is just too tiresome and, well, childish.

    A related thing but slightly off-topic - I continue to be amazed at how poorly we educated hockey fans are served by mainstream coverage of the game (at least the NHL). As I said, we do start with a high "base" knowledge of the game. I think that we deserve, and should demand, better coverage and analysis for our beloved game. I so often tune out (or fast forward over) so much of what passes for analysis on TV broadcasts, and don't get me started on the newspapers (Cox and Duhatschek aside). Where do you think this comes from, this decision to pitch coverage to the lowest common denominator? When was the last time you learned something from a broadcast or newspaper article, or enjoyed a true insight? Is this what BBC coverage of soccer is like, or New Zealand TV coverage of a rugby match? Maybe it is, and I'm being too demanding. All I know is that I often feel stupid for watching it/listening to it, and that can't be good.

    Keep on keeping on, Michael.

  10. I appreciate your thoughtful comment, Michael.

    Yes, many hockey fans "know" the game; they've played, coached or watched to some degree for many years. For most of us, however, our knowledge of the game (and of the demands of the sport at the professional level) pales compared with what would truly be needed to operate in that world.

    As you say, we can by all means have fun opining and debating the topics and decisions of the day around the Leafs and yes, fans can certainly be "right" sometimes. But my "opinions" aside, I'm best to step aside and let the 'pros' do the job (as I do in the rest of my life), and I certainly will in the case of Carlyle.

    To your point on commentators and mainstream media, I can't argue that. On a day to day basis, there are certainly some capable writers, but when it comers to real insight, or telling us something that we don't already know (or information that comes from simply having access to the principles involved in the sport- coaches, GM's, scouts, players) the coverage is often lacking, agreed. To me, it is not a case of having to be an investigative sports journalist. Just that full-time writers should be able to provide more legitimate insight than the knowledgeable everyday fan. In that sense, though, there is not much to separate the aware, thoughtful fan from most mainstream writers and columnists- except the paycheque.

    Hockey fall well short of the coverage of the sports you mention. From language to analysis, the standards are often simply higher in the coverage of those sports.

    Thanks for chiming in, Michael.

  11. Hi Michael,

    I think you'll find that there is a ton of white noise on twitter from Pension Plan Puppets and their visitors/followers. In fact, it's all coming from them and their parrots. They usually have a thing or a someone they are trying to beat up on. It can be funny sometimes, but most of the time, it’s a waste of time and effort.

    They feel like they are "on to something" with Advanced Statistics—that they are somehow elitist and superior to other fans. Most people are intimidated by numbers and especially new numbers that involve hockey—which is a sport that doesn't lend itself well to advanced statistics because of the infinite amount of variables—and they lean on this, brow-beating their readers into a group-think mentality where people that don't agree with them are ridiculed by regular readers and chastised for forming an opinion based on eyeballs. Hockey is most certainly an eyeballs sport and it always will be. This infuriates them that someone with apparent lower IQs than themselves can know more about the sport than they can just by sitting and watching.

    You see, most of the PPP commenters are office dwellers/cubical monkeys; a lot of finance and financial sector folk (the website is a ghost town after 5pm in the comments section) and aren't true hockey fans, you could say. Sure, they know their Leaf players, and like the team but the bulk of the writers and commenters are diametrically opposed to fighting and violence. If it's not measurable, they want nothing to do with it. For example, how a player defends or prevents goals doesn't actually have a metric. There isn't a "Thing" for that, so they don't talk about that part of the game. These are just “things” to make up for a lack of hockey sense—things that other communities on other sites have.

    They are well aware that defensemen have no metric. There is no way to measure this and they NEVER talk about that, do they? Advanced stats are useful, I think, if you are looking at struggling players and to see if they are still getting scoring chances. NHL Teams are more than aware of advanced statistics and keep their own. The fact that they have them and chose not to use them speaks volumes about how effective they are.

    You can't quantify that and it is certainly a sore spot with them. The stats don't pass the sniff test. They are unfounded and NHL teams have not adopted them because they are wildly inaccurate. It is accepted that they have 65-75% accuracy only. That's not something I'd ever want to hang my hat on.

    It’s apparent in your voice in your podcast that your confidence is shaken in this team due to a black magic of “they’re not worthy”. You’re a smart hockey observer that should probably stick to your guns on what your gut is telling you: winners win and losers lose. Carlyle is a winner. Always has been, always will be. (con't)

  12. The Leafs are equally as talented as they were last year—perhaps a touch more, but the blowouts are gone. The shitting their pants in the 3rd period are gone. The swagger of the group of up. The collective balls of the group is sky high (you would be too, with the #1 and #2 heavyweight in the league on your team). They regularly do whatever they please as a team: score a will (2nd in the league as last look), yet we don’t have a household name; a Crosby, Malkin, Stamkos. We don’t have a “Shea Weber”.. remember Phaneuf is overrated? Remember that? Kessel is soft? Kadri is a bust. Lupul never lived up to his potential. Grabovski was a headcase and shipped out of town. McArthur was worthless. The list goes on and on, but Toronto is as deep as you need a team to be deep. They are a “good team” that is entering “very good” territory. The collective game watching IQ of PPP users/writers not even last year had this team as complete garbage. Pre-season predictions had some of them saying the Leafs will finish last. Last? Yup. These are people that write and follow the team closely—their every move, every day. Last. Most said lottery pick (Bottom 5). Other, better writers and better judges of talent had the Leafs finishing as a bubble team or in and around there.

    Your best bet, which you appear to be doing (in your Podcast, at least), is to completely ignore them. You haven’t mentioned them once, or had them on the show—and good for you, they’re not worthy.

    This “blog”/cesspool, has been anti-Leaf for a very long time and rip on everything and everyone. If you look at this year, it’s clearly been Carlyle as public enemy #1. He likes to dress fighters, and these are typically effeminate men that write there and don’t have time for fighters. It makes sense. I’m not a proponent of having 2 goons on the team, but I see the logic. Kadri hasn’t been drilled this year. Kessel hasn’t. They are free to do whatever they want. If Orr is in the box or ejected, you need backup.

    So this year, it’s been (if you’re counting): Carlyle, then Bozak? Ya, him. Then the AHL rookie who FINALLY cracked the roster: Kostka. That was a huge hate on for that poor fella. He makes the NHL and immediately gets RIPPED – DAILY — FULL POSTS, and all the lemmings in the comments parroting it. Lets see… who was it next? Was it back to Bozak? NO, NO – then it was “MOAR ORR” or “Face punchers”… sigh. Then back to Bozak. Then back to Carlyle. HOW can we forget another NHL rookie and Marlies graduate, Holzer. This guy finally makes NHL and they just abusively hammer him. NON.STOP.NO.LETUP.

    Then Jake Gardiner. Where do you start with him? So… he has no training camp and gets added into the lineup in a game situation based on reputation and ability from last season — they didn’t know how badly affected he was from his concussion. He looked really dopey—anyone with sense saw that; a slick-skating dope. (con't)

  13. Goes back down to the Marlies and doesn’t play well, but they start circling the wagons — slowly to start — then it builds with momentum. MOAR Gardiner.. or whatever. He’s still not ready to play and has about 3 good games where he is playing at a respectable level for him. Not realizing the waiver situation, where if he gets called up and plays 3 games, he can’t be sent back down and has to sit in the press box if his play isn’t up to snuff. Sure enough, it isn’t and he can’t be sent down. His play was shaky from the get-go and they will throw out chances for and against while he’s on the ice (which says nothing of the 4 other skaters) and say he creates more than he gives away defensively. He’s a slick-skating defenseman that can be a great player in this league for a long time if he learns to play the right way.

    If Carlyle had it out for Gardiner, that wouldn’t make any sense at all. Why would you inhibit your team that you want to win every single game with? He’s going to ice the team that gives him the best chance to win every single night. Dressing all offensive players doesn’t do that. The best team—the players that play best together—is what wins you games, not fantasy moves that adds all the best offensive players.

    Carlyle is a Norris Trophy winning defenseman that can speak to what being an elite defenseman is. It doesn’t take talent to be good defensively, it takes the ability to want to win your one-on-one puck battles and to impose your will on the other player. Gardiner doesn’t do that. Imagine if you could combine Fraser’s will-power and Gardiner’s offensive talents? That’s what he’s trying to do.

    Long of the short – don’t listen to or read people that know less about the game than you do, Michael. There isn’t anyone over there that knows the game as a competitor or player. It’s abacus first, game second. If you watch how much chatter there is during the games, its apparent they aren’t watching the games.

    You’re a more experienced, more thoughtful writer that has seen and forgot more about the game of hockey than all of those ass-clowns combined.



  14. And Michael, more fuel for the fire:

    Read the comments section where they fully and wholly rip you to shreds.

  15. Thank you for your support, Spencer. I try not to visit the comments section on other sites, for the reasons you cite. I don't engage in pissing contests. There's no point. Beyond what I try to do here, I've worked with many NHL players and coaches, junior players, agents, etc. I have a small sense of understanding of that world, though nowhere near what people who live it every day do, of course.

    Since I started the VLM site three and a half years ago, I have most enjoyed writing about the old days. And while I like chiming in about the present day Leafs, I sometimes find the negativity taxing- and by negativity I include some of the things you mention in your comments today, Spencer. Fans attacking one another, as though one "group" somehow knows "more" than anyone else. I don't understand it, and as regular visitors here know, I have sometimes talked about my concerns with "group think". It's not for me, and I'm not a fan of bullying, either.

    Why the need to mock former players, years after they have left Toronto? Yet we see it all the time. I don't need to name the players again. Everyone knows. It's just so unnecessary.

    I've tried to create an environment here where we can chat, disagree but still try to understand and respect other's people's views.

    In any event, I appreciate your heads up. I won't go to the link, for the same reason I tell my podcast partner I don't visit the HB Boards any more. I tried, and it was too negative.

    I'm happy to observe, watch the league and the Leafs as I always have. I host this site for those who enjoy it. Those that don't fortunately have tons of other Leaf options that they can turn to.

    I'm glad you dropped by. Thank you Spencer. Sorry if I didn't do justice to your overall comments about the Leafs.