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Randy Carlyle and the right ‘mix’ for the Maple Leafs going forward

At the end of the day, the Maple Leafs—as currently composed—are a skating club.  They were that under Ron Wilson, and had some heady moments, for sure, during his time behind the bench.  (The significant “success” in the first half of the 2011-’12 NHL season was a testament to that.)  But somewhat to our amazement (at least mine), they still are a skating club under Randy Carlyle.

I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting when Carlyle came to town, but I recall being less than thrilled at the prospect.  At the very least, I anticipated he would be a disciplinarian (though Wilson was supposed to be a demanding task master as well) who focused on defensive “structure”, which is fine.  I perhaps figured  that the team might be better, but dreadfully dull.

To step back a bit, I remember Carlyle as an emerging young defenseman on the Leaf blueline in the late 1970s.  He was tough but had some offensive skill as well.  (I actually spent a lot of time at Maple Leaf Gardens in those days watching him play back then.)  And  I well recalled his subsequent very good (and lengthy) NHL career as a versatile, leader-type defenseman in Pittsburgh and Winnipeg.

As a coach, he had had success as well, at the minor-league and NHL level.  A Cup on the resume never hurts.  But I was still a bit skeptical when Burke made the hire.  Like many, I wondered why Carlyle was brought in when he was, with a season already well out of control.  I further wondered, like other Leaf observers, if Dallas Eakins might have been the best choice, given that he had worked with so many of the promising Leaf prospects.

As the 2012-’13 season moved along, I sort of grudgingly came to see what Carlyle was about, at least as he came across in this market.  Publicly, he was much less acerbic than his predecessor (which was one of one major issues with Wilson).  I also noticed that, while Carlyle had a reputation as a taciturn, no-nonsense guy, he seemed to communicate a lot with his players, including on the bench.  He wasn’t afraid to physically pat a guy on the back—something a lot of coaches are not comfortable doing.

He gave Kadri a shot at a full-time gig, and put him on a much longer leash than the young center (previously a winger for some reason) had ever been on before.  He asked for more from Kessel at both ends of the ice, but did not limit him offensively as best I could tell. 

The new Leaf coach had to work with a limited (and often injured, i.e. Gunnarsson, Gardiner) defense corps.  He had to incorporate unproven minor-leaguers like Kostka and Holzer into the lineup, especially when the previous season’s standout rookie (Gardiner) was hit with a concussion and struggled upon his return.

Lupul was injured (again) and the team had no identifiable big-league goaltending heading into the shortened season.  (I can only imagine what Carlyle must have honestly been thinking, preparing for a season with no training camp to speak of and goaltenders he knew little about…)  Some of us had remained in Reimer’s corner during the long, dark days of doubt, but many fans wanted Luongo or someone (anyone?) else to man the Leaf net, because they were not at all comfortable with Reimer or Scrivens are number-one guys.  Carlyle must have felt some uncertainty himself.

But he pushed forward with the Reimer and Scrivens, giving both a chance to show they belonged.  Both did well, Reimer ultimately playing his way into the top job.

My point in all this is that, bottom line, Carlyle worked with a roster that, sure, had some nice pieces, but really no elite goaltender and nowhere near enough elite NHL defensemen.  He still lacked a top-end center, and had taken over a team that could not possibly be worse at killing penalties—one of the most important aspects of the modern-day game.

What Carlyle delivered, in the end, was a team that sometimes played like the puck was a hot potato, yet overcome turnovers and being out-shot too many nights to post a winning record and earn a playoff berth in the quality-starved Eastern Conference.

But to me, the big thing Carlyle did was change the temperature in the dressing room, the overall expectations he had when it came to a standard of play.  Not to over-use words like “accountability” (we’ve seen that movie in Toronto before) but he actually delivered on developing a team that seemed to not accept losing quite as easily as Leaf teams had in the previous eight or nine seasons.  They became tougher, harder to play against.  Some of it was the presence of Orr and MacLaren, sure, but it was more than that. There was an edge to their overall play most nights.  Individuals like McClement and Komarov finished checks and played hard, smart hockey.  Even guys like Kadri played with a bit of a mean streak.  Our penalty killing did indeed improve dramatically.  And some youngsters began to demonstrate why the Leafs drafted, signed or traded for them in the first place.

We can argue whether Grabovski was utilized properly, but my answer is this:  Grabbo, who usually plays with a big heart, is paid big money to be an elite second-line player with important defensive responsibilities.  Whether he played with the “right” guys all the time, I can’t say.  But he did not deliver what I expected at either end of the ice, and I’m not sure he provided what Carlyle was looking for, either.  Blame it on Carlyle if you want, but he was not the guy making 5 million plus to do a job—and not getting it done.

Let’s put it this way:  there are a few Leafs (I know many will disagree, but I’ll throw MacArthur and Kulemin in here, along with Grabbo) who we keep making excuses for.  They may have been hurt.  They maybe played with the wrong guys.  They were snake-bit.  The coach didn’t like them.  Whatever.

I’ll just say this:  at some point, all players are responsible for their own performance.  It’s not all on their teammates, or their coach.  I can maybe accept that, in the case of goaltenders, if you have a coach who is filling your head (Allaire?) with stuff that just doesn’t work for you, that’s an issue.  But by and large, NHL players have to play with whomever they are asked to play with, and do the job that is asked of them.  In Grabbovski’s case, that was checking, many nights, a good center on the other team.  At the end of the day, his  (minus) numbers were simply not good enough.

All this said, my point is not to canonize Carlyle.  But I figure since he gets plenty of criticism elsewhere from the stats folks and other Leaf supporters (and I do get the criticism, I just don’t hang my hat on all that), I would try to provide some balance.

He has changed the attitude around here.  Expectations, I sense, will be even higher (as they should be; just making the playoffs, as I like to say, was the low-hanging fruit) going forward.

Now it will be a case of finding the right mix of skill and grit.

I read something that caught my eye the other day from a great former major league baseball player (and as I write this, still the manager of the struggling LA Dodgers), Don Mattingly.  Mattingly was a talented but also hard-working player for the New York Yankees until the mid-‘90s or so.  He was a great Yankee and very well-respected on and off the field.

It looked for a time that he may actually be the next Yankee manager after Joe Torre, but the job went to Joe Girardi.  In any event, here is what Mattingly said about building a team:

"Part of it is the mixture of competitiveness. It's not just putting an All-Star team out there and the All-Star team wins. You try to find that balance of a team that's got a little grit and fight, and has enough talent to get there also. It's not all grit and no talent that gets there, and it's not all talent and no grit. It's a mixture of both."

I think this applies to hockey, too, and certainly the Maple Leafs.  When I look at that quote, I think of the Devils and the Red Wings (and before that, the Avalanche) who fit that bill—not just for one season (one-hit wonders like the Lightning and the Hurricanes) but season after season.  They built teams with skill, yes, but also grit and a tremendous work ethic.

That’s exactly what the Leafs have to do, regardless of who coaches the team, or what “system” they employ or who plays with who.

I always remember the Wayne Gretzky comment, made many years ago when he was the coach of the Coyotes.  He said, “You know what beats hard work?  Talent and hard work”.

The Leafs are a team right now that works pretty hard most nights.  Again, I would expect that from a borderline team that needed to be a lot better than it had been in recent years.

But I was impressed that they were by and large able to outplay the Bruins at times in the playoffs, combining the aforementioned (and always required) hard work with the requisite skill.

I would say we are three or four pieces/players away from being a team that could be in a position to win the East. Heck, we maybe could have advanced to the Conference final this season, with a few breaks.  But I’m talking about being consistently elite, like the teams I mentioned above.

Only three or four players away.  Too optimistic?

What do you think...


  1. I have continued to support Carlyle through this season, and so far I am happy with the job he has done. I think the difference between him and another "tough" coach like Wilson is the difference between dictating and demanding. Carlyle is demanding, and I won't make the mistake that he isn't of the mind that it is his way or the highway. But he seems to have the players' respect, and they respond to him. I don't think it's a big secret that Wilson was disliked personally by players all over the league who have played for him.

    Whether he put players, most notably Grabovski, in the correct role is a valid question, but I'm also willing to give Carlyle and the organization a flyer on that. After all, we have repeatedly discussed here how this year was an appropriate opportunity to tinker and see what works. Hopefully Carlyle (and Nonis) have the answers they were looking for.

    Moving forward, I have to say that I would hate to see the Leafs get away from the speed team that we started to see at the beginning of last season. They have simply incorporated a different attitude toward defense, and I see no reason why that can't mesh well with a fast transition attack, it seems to have worked well thus far. When it comes to deciding which forwards to keep as part of their core and which to distance themselves from, I think the Leafs need to see who has been buying into the defensive philosophy. We already know who can score, but that doesn't mean anything when you're -25 for the season and constantly hemmed in your own zone.

    I didn't comment on your last post, but I'll briefly say here that I do not want the Leafs to throw a huge contract at any one player in free agency. There have been far too many Brad Richards compared to actual successes. Even those that have panned out well, like Marian Hossa, will likely still need a buyout to erase a crippling cap blow at the end of the contracts. I have always felt that you can find two really good players for $4 million a year, as opposed to one overpriced, past his prime superstar who will cost more than twice that per season.

    I think the depth is present on the current roster for the most part, including the emerging prospects. If a shut down defenseman is available at less than $6 million a year, he might be worth it to take some of the burden off Phaneuf. Otherwise I think it's time to let this team grow.

  2. Outstanding post- you touched on a lot of important points today, Pete.

    Your comments stand on their own merits, I'll just add that I do believe, to your point above, that Carlyle did see what he needed to see this past season, in order to determine what he wants to do going forward.

    Of course the roster will change a bit, but coaches are constantly making adjustments, so that's not an problem. Assuming the "core" stays intact, the Leafs can indeed become a defensively reliable team and still not lose their speed and transition game. (And yes, adding a solid defensive defenseman would not hurt!) Thanks Pete.

  3. "Only three or four players away. Too optimistic?"

    Orr, Gretzky and Lemieux?

    But seriously, the Pittsburgh/Boston series will show us how good Boston is...and we did take Boston to seven games

    The addition of JVR and McClement made a huge difference during the past year. The addition of even two more players of similar impact could turn the Leafs into a very good team.

    The Leafs could become the kind of team that can beat anybody on any night and is an annual threat to go deep into the playoffs.

    We need another defenseman and they are out there. Just look at Denis Siedenberg. Boston did not have to give a lot to get him, but he is valuable.

    If we could clone McClement, increase his size by 25 lbs and teach him to fight we would have an almost ideal enforcer, who could log big minutes.

    But there may be a veteran that could help our bottom six. Just addding another elite checker (like McClement) to the fourth line could allow us to really check from that line and free up Grabovski to play a more offensive game like he did in past years. We saw hints of that in the last games against Boston.

    The other day I mentioned Boyd Gordon is UFA and got only 1.3 million on his last contract. He wins over 57% of his faceoffs and takes a lot( 789 last year.) I wouldn't mind being able to throw out a fourth line of Komorov, Gordon and McClement. All three of those guys can win faceoffs late in a game and get that puck out of the zone. If we manage to keep Bozak, we would be a decent faceoff team.

  4. Solid stuff, as always, DP. (I like the Orr, Gretzky and Lemieux idea, too- they're all pretty old, but maybe they're still available??!!)

    You're right about McClement and van Riemsdyk. Adding a couple more pieces to this mix would be nice, for sure. Your point on Seidenberg is an excellent one- and that's exactly the kind of "addition" that could help the Leafs became a legitimate contender. (That's probably my "Sumertime Dream", to quote Lightfoot- a difference-making, minutes-eating defenseman...)

    I like Gordon, too. That's why the summer can be fun for fans- waiting to see what we add to the mix! Thanks DP.

  5. Four players? Crosby, Suter, Webe and Malkin? Then we contend? Mais oui!

    Seriously your thinking is reasonable. The playoffs have left a wishful thinker such as I with the notion that the Leafs could well be the third best team in the East.

    The challenge is that the 4 or so players are not fourth liner and third pairing types. To contend a true #1 defenseman is needed. A new Bozak with an across the board better skill set. Doesn't have to be Sid.

    So we are looking at two real top quality players plus too other solid guys. Likely a defenseman and a second line forward. It cannot be reasonable to expect that such a mitt full will come through free agency nor trades for that matter.

    So I agree with the four players making us a serious contender. Third best in the East is a far cry from third best in the West but hey it is still third best in the East. Toronto is not that far from being a viable conference finalist.

    The question is, how do we acquire these players? Can Kadri become the needed number 1 centre? What is the ceiling of Gardiner, Rielly et al? How fast do these guys develop? The only way of trying to accelerate all this to trade one of these guys.

    While one or two pieces might be acquired through trade, or as a last resort as a typically overpaid name free agent, filling at least half these four spots is going to require patience. Some answers already lie within. Let's not fleece our own cupboards nor ball and chain ourselves with silly free agent deals.

    We need four to contend, yes I agree. I agree that we are talking about long term strong showings. That sounds like finding out what we potentially have and developing it should be the first action. Complimentary pieces can be acquired. But let's first find out how many of these four we already have in the pipeline,then assess our needs. Patience.

  6. It's funny, Bmaximus- though the Leafs achieved more than many expected this past season, it was, in my mind, still a year when Carlyle was in fact "patient". (Nonis, too, for that matter, though he apparently was dipping his toe in the Kiprusoff/Luongo waters at the deadline...) The coach played kids, virtual unknowns and guys in different spots all season to test what he had. I'm thinking he walked away with a strong sense of what is now needed to become, as you say, a top-three team in the admittedly lesser Eastern Conference. (By the way, if we can throw your suggestion of Crosby, Malkin and Weber in with DP's notion of Orr, Gretzky and Lemieux, we have what we need!)

    I agree we "need" two really strong pieces and one or two "lesser" role-players who still will have an impact. It sounds like a lot- and it is, I guess. And no, it won't all happen in one magical trade or through big-name free-agents.

    But as opposed to recent years, we can at least feel like we are closer, which beats where we were before. Thanks Bmaximus.

  7. My offseason pipe dream

    On the back end:
    Nonis submits offer sheet to Shattenkirk and/ or Stewart for $5 million per. Armstrong matches. Now Nonis has Armstrong right where he wants him and submits offer sheet to Pietrangelo for $6.5 - $7 million per. BAM! Armstong forced to accept compensation picks. #1D

    Phanuef - Pietrangelo
    Gardiner - Franson
    Gunnarsson - Fraser/ Holzer/ Blacker

    Amnesty buyout Liles, deal with Komisarek for one more season in Marlies or trade while retaining some salary

    Up Front:
    Get grittier

    JVR - Weiss - Kessel
    Lupul - Kadri - Clarkson
    Kulemin - Bozak/ Colborne - Frattin
    Torres/ Komarov - McClement - Gordon/ McLaren

    Bye bye MacArthur, amnesty buy out Grabbo, resign Bozak less than 3.5 or walk.
    So ya, 3-4 maybe even 5 pieces away. Shouldn't be too hard :D

    1. Some radical thinking, Anon- RFA offer sheets. A little daring, for sure. Pietrangelo is an awfully solid young defenseman. Is it do-able? I don't know, but it's an intriguing thought.

    2. If I might ask, why Weiss over Grabbo? Grabovski is slightly younger and has scored more than Weiss over the last 3 years. Grabovski didn't have a great season, but I have a hard time imagining that Weiss is much of an upgrade.

    3. @mapleleafmjt I'd love to keep Grabbo, don't get me wrong. Can't understand why he is never put on a line with Kessel (both players are "shoot first" guys, I get it - but I think great players make adjustments to who they're on a line with. This isn't beer league, it's the NHL). But to answer your question, two reasons. First, I guess I just believe he is capable of more than his stats have shown. He has great vision and is an excellent passer as well as a two-way game. And I think it's possible he could be signed for less than what Grabbo makes. Second, which has nothing to do with hockey, I went to high school with Weiss and even partied with him before he left for Plymouth so there is some personal bias there. (To be clear, I don't think he would sign with Toronto even if he was offered a contract - like I said, pipe dream).

  8. here is a bold move for you Michael, I believe I read that Malkin has only a year left before he is up for a new contract. if so would you trade a Kadri for a Malkin, perhaps part of a bigger trade. Unless you draft one this is the only way to get a top flight center. It takes a bold move sometimes to get to the next level. pitt will have cap issues but the leafs would have to be proactive to make it happen.

    1. That would be bold, purch- and quite a thought! Malkin is certainly one of the elite talents in the league, though can be one of those infuriating players that floats at times.

      The Pens may feel they can afford him when the cap goes up (presumably) after next season. That said, they have certainly made bold moves before, eh? Trading Staal last summer was huge. So who knows? Thanks purch.

  9. Hey Michael,

    Are we 3-4 players away from annual contenders - perhaps - but for how long - Lupul, Phanuef, Grabovski, McClemment, Kessel, Gunnarson aren't getting any younger - so yes - if we are short sighted like the leafs management of old then 3-4 solid guys can make you a contender for the next 3 yrs. But what about the pipeline and the farm - I think in the cap system - a team that can produce it's own cheap solid players and then add window dressing of a few good players via trades/free agency will have long term sustained success. Oh and good luck helps too.

    Oh and lets not forget, the game is about to get tougher for the leafs thanks to the realignment - you add the Red Wings, Tampa and Florida to your division rival list - The wings are a perennial contender - and have proven their detractor's from this season incorrect with their playoff performance - they have one of the best record at finding diamonds in the rough that others overlook. Tampa and Florida and the #3 and #2 picks this year - One of Mackinnon, Jones or Drouin is about to be added to their already strong young talent pool) so we only need to wait 3-4 yrs for them to start really competing with us tooth and nail.

    We also now have to travel a lot more than the leafs have ever - two division teams in Florida and have to visit once all the western conference teams. Carlyle will need to provide guidance for better conditioning and off-ice player management.

    And with the realignment even once in the playoffs we will have to play out of our division to reach for the top prize - so how we stand up against our division is more important than ever now.

    Oh and lets not forget some teams in the east that should have competed were devastated by injuries - Hurricanes, Sens, Flyers, Panthers, and Devils; and they are bound to put up a bigger fight come next year - so the leafs will be best served by the humble pie they had in game 7.

    Now for me personally this summer should be dedicated to:
    1. getting some of the core roster fitter for the coming season - Lupul, Gardiner, Kadri, Reimer, Gunnarson.

    2. Work on specific lack of skills that got highlighted for Randy to have on his team (as in specific type of player) or in the players on the roster (like a personal skill).

    3. Draft smart and trade smart and sign smart and plz have a clear long term plan.

    Some of my dynamic moves this summer - if I am Dave Nonis:
    1. Trade up in the draft to one of the top five picks.

    2. Sign more of the hidden gems out of the western conference - they are more battle and travel hardened.

    3. Limit myself from any of the overly hyped free agents

    4. Keep my ears open to trades like the JVR-Schenn type - a one for one trade of good young players based on needs of both teams.

    5. Aim to find at least one good faceoff/shootout guy.

    6. Solidify my situation in the back-up goalie position - keep Scrives or Sign/Trade another guy

    I think the leafs will be a bubble team next year - just because of the changes that are occurring in the way a team qualifies for the playoffs (8 teams in this division competing for 3 guaranteed spots; plus two wild card from the rest of the remaining teams from the two divisions).

    What the future brings - I don't know but we will need a few home-run moves from Nonis and our players (in their skill/strength development) to improve next season.

    Let me know what you think - always appreciate your insight.

    Anon from Scarborough

    1. Hi Scarborough Anon- lots of very good points here. It's true, what we might project the Leafs as being in the East right now can change in a few months. Are they a contender, a team that will make the playoffs no question or a bubble team? If they just get a bit better through internal growth only, what happens if other teams move forward by leaps and bounds?

      Other teams could improve (or yes, get worse, as happened with Florida this past season, and the Rangers, too...), so it's a moving target, for sure. That doesn't change that the Leafs have needs and Nonis will look to fill them as soon as he can at a price or cost that makes sense, as GM's always like to see.

      Your 6-point plan is interesting. I sense a lot of us are wary of big-ticket free-agents, but as you note, a trade to acquire a player where both teams benefit would be good if we were able to acquire a really strong defenseman. But those kinds of deals come at a huge cost, usually.

      Interesting that you raise conditioning/fitness. Carlyle is a stickler, as all NHL coaches are in this regard these days. He took over the team late in 2011-'12 and did not have anything close to a real training camp this past season.

      So this summer will be key. That's when a lot of players "get better"- mentally, physically and in terms of their approach and attitude toward the game and how they play. Should be interesting.

      Thanks for posting, Scarborough Anon..

  10. People seem to be coming here and listening to my ideas:

  11. Hey Michael,

    Don't get me wrong - I completely understand that one as a GM still needs to try and assemble the best team possible especially after making the playoffs after such a long time. And I guess he should, but I was trying to provide a different prospective out front since the dynamics of the league are changing in the CAP system and now we throw into the mix the realignment of the league and the remodelling of the playoff qualification standards.

    Anon from Scarborough

    1. I agree, Scarborough Anon. GM's are always looking to find the right pieces and improve the roster at all positions. If, for example, a "better" goalie than Reimer showed up, that guy would play, no question- regardless of how hard Reimer played and how well he did in the past.

      You provided a solid view at to what's around the corner- the league evolving and the cap realities. Part of the fun of being a fan is trying to think along with the GM. We'll see if some of what you propose happens!

  12. I couldn't agreee with you more Michael. I was also not thrilled with the hiring of Carlyle at first. He came off as a hard @ss to me, and I felt he would be too hard on the kids and be unable to relate to them, and thankfully I was wrong and I can admit that. In fact some of the kids like Kadri seemed to really respond to Carlyle very well.
    I know there are still a lot of doubters about him, and even I have not always agreed with his line ups, but at the end of the day he is a Norris trophy winner as a player, Stanley Cup winner as a coach and has done what no coach in almost a decade has, gotten the Leafs back into the playoffs. So now when I hear someone complain about how bad of a coach Carlyle is, i simply respond with " So, how many Stanley Cups have you won?"

    1. This is the thing, Brent. I don't pretend I am in agreement with all of what Carlyle "does" as coach here. But c'mon, does any fan truly believe we see things he doesn't, or we have access to some obscure but vital "stat" that he doesn't?

      He's a good NHL coach. So, frankly, was Ron Wilson. (So were - and are - a lot of guys.)

      For his part, Wilson did not just "throw guys out there and let them do what they wanted" as some have suggested. I disliked Wilson's public persona, full stop. But the guy could coach. Maybe some of his players loathed him. Scotty Bowman made a career out of being loathed.

      I'm not a coach, never will be. Nor will "fans" ever be. We absolutely have a right to complain, but Carlyle- like any confident, experienced professional - will do what he does based on what he sees out of the players he lives with every day. He'll make mistakes, and do good things. It's the cycle of life- and coaching. Thanks Brent.

  13. To your second point, about the Leafs being 4 players away from being dominant in this Eastern Conference, again I agree a hundred times over. I think the biggest needs of this team to start being very dominant is a #1/2 D man to team up with Phaneuf and eleviate some of the pressure off of him. We all know Phaneuf's effectiveness drop dramatically after he Plays 24+ minutes, so we deffinitely need someone else to come in and eat big Minutes as well.
    I also think the addition of anotehr top 6 winger would deffinitely help too, I actually have my fingers crossed that the Leafs go after Clarkeson in the off season, i think a top 4 of Kessel, JVR, Lupup and Clarkeson would be as good or close to any other top teams top 4 wingers.
    And last, the elusive 1st line C. I would go out on a limb this off season, if NYR buys out Richards this off season and the Leafs could grab him for a low risk, low dollar amount, I would do that in heartbeat, this is a player that usally averages close to 50 asssists a season and will have something to prove next year, it would be low risk and the potential for a very high reward IMO. What do you think Michael?

    1. I like the Clarkson idea (who wouldn't?), yes. I think DP or someone here posted on that notion recently. And I would absolutely go after Richards if he was a true no-risk, low-cost free-agent.

      That said, this is the time to dream. Will those kinds of things actually happen? That's harder to believe...