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It’s time for the Maple Leaf players to be held accountable, too.

There are plenty of valid reasons to be critical of Randy Carlyle as coach of the Maple Leafs.  I don’t need to provide a laundry list of issues that have concerned fans over the past couple of seasons. They have been well documented.

I’ve said here before that all eyes will be on Carlyle when the season gets underway for real on October 8. Was the summertime contract extension just a smokescreen to give Shanahan more time to assess the coach—and the roster?  Or does the new boss actually believe that Carlyle, long-term, is the right guy to take the Leafs back to the playoffs?

I really don’t know. For all we know, Carlyle really doesn’t want to make the adjustments many fans seem to want to see in terms of a system and game-night personnel. And perhaps he and Shanahan are in fact on a philosophical collision course that will end in a new coach being hired for the blue and white before the new season is out.

But as we watch the Leaf players work their way through the pre-season games, and we see some of the same old habits in their play that we have seen for the last couple of seasons, it’s fair to ask questions like: are all the issues the organization faces really the fault of the coach?

If a coach and his staff remind players over and over again to do something, is it not on the players to make the effort to get the job done?  Most of us would agree that defense is a team thing.  Every guy on the ice has to do their job, and work together within the structure laid out for them. They can’t just do it half-assed, or ‘sort of’, or when the mood strikes. Being conscientious about defense is mostly a matter of awareness, willingness and effort- not necessarily skill.

Now, we can certainly say it’s up to the coach to insist/demand that players do their job. But it’s not as if the players are in the dark and have no clue what’s expected of them. I don’t really buy that. Just as I did not believe that Ron Wilson “had no system”. He had a system; the players simply became disinterested in doing what was asked of them.

At what point, when players refuse to play the system expected of them, does it stop being the coach’s fault?  Eventually the team didn’t play for Wilson, and while there are a number of new players here, obviously, this group did not play well enough, consistently enough, for Carlyle last year.

Their early work—seeing how many shots they were allowing in the pre-season, at least until the loss on Monday night against what was essentially Detroit’s AHL team—suggests they may still be unwilling to do the work required to be a top team in the admittedly middlish Eastern Conference.

My point is not to dump on the players (or the coach) before the season even starts, but let’s be honest: most Leaf fans seem to want Carlyle gone, so we are about to embark on what could be a self-fulfilling prophecy.  The players likely sense the same thing.  They know Nonis and Carlyle both saw their wings clipped when their respective assistants were let go this past summer.  So they know that, hey, a four-game losing streak and the coach is gone.

A new coach will always be a breath of fresh air, eh?  If the old coach was a taskmaster, the new coach will be a “player’s coach”. Everyone will say he’s easy to play for and great to talk to.  If the guy just fired was easy going, the new guy will be demanding and the players will say, “that’s exactly what we need, some structure and discipline…”.

It’s been this way forever in sports.

Bottom line, for me, I want to see the players be accountable.  They’ve proven they can get coaches fired, be it head coaches or assistant coaches.  But when will they stop blaming others for years of mediocrity and look in the mirror and say, “I’m part of the problem here…I need to be better at both ends of the rink”.

Accountability is a big word in sports these days, but I’m not sure what it means sometimes.  Players only sound accountable when they say it’s too bad the old coach got fired.  “We should have played better. It’s not his fault…” is the old dodge.

Similarly, how often do players say after a lousy game, “that wasn’t acceptable.”  But what does that really mean?  Those same players were on the ice when they had a chance to make a difference, to set a different tone and actually be accountable—but often the ones speaking are responsible for the lousy performance, too.

So yes, by all means we can criticize the coach for his failings, intractibility and perceived errors in judgment. But at some point, professional athletes need to be “accountable” regardless of the system they are asked to play. If they basically keep playing the way they want to play, and make the same mistakes time and again, is that all on the coach?

This is not to absolve Carlyle, simply to say that the players have a responsibility in all this, too.

Hopefully this Maple Leaf squad spends time this week on their ‘getaway’ up north reflecting on what they, individually, can do to make a difference this season. From a players’ perspective, there is no excuse for not playing hard every night, regardless of the system—or who is behind the bench.


  1. You're so right, Michael, it is proper to say things like: 'this is not acceptable' and 'we have to do better/give a better effort'. Yet, when the players fail to 'step up' and actually implement the system, it rings very hollow for me, too. Taking responsibility comes down to more than saying 'the right words', you need to back up your words with measureable, responsible action.

    Did Randy actually 'lose the room' or did the players never 'buy in'? I guess this is a big part of the answers that Brendan and Dave will have to answer... if we see a 'core dump' of trades then we know it wasn't for lack of effort and clarity on Randy's part. If Randy goes, then we still won't know until we see the new coach walk a mile (or 40 games) in his moccasins.

    It may well be a bit of both - players not liking Randy's system and failing to buy in, hoping for a new system... but perhaps the players are wrong about what could succeed if they were willing to really give it a fair shot. Certainly might require them to get out of their comfort zone, and success is never easy!

    I really do hope all the cards are put on the table up in cottage country and we see a full buy-in... if it fails, then we need changes in coaching and/or personnel.

    1. I guess winning is a habit, InTimeFor62, in the sense that players learn what it takes in terms of physical and mental preparation. The Leafs aren't there yet, and they will need to prove to themselves -and to fans and management- that they can follow the plan and develop the kind of work ethic required to achieve consistent success.

  2. Yes, the players have to "buy in", but at the end of the day it's the responsibility (and job) of the coaching staff to make this happen. Ken Hitchcock and Mike Babcock have both spoken about their need to reinvent their approach as they dealt with new players year after year. I suppose the first two months will tell us whether Carlyle is changing his approach, or if it's to be the same old same old. But we'll get an inkling when the final cuts are made next week.
    I remain one of those who's astounded that Carlyle (and Nonis, for that matter) survived the summer. I don't see the point of putting them on a short leash, as has been suggested. Either they're the guys we need or they aren't. Firing their assistants is like firing the waiters when the chef can't cook!
    If I was to be concerned about our prospects this year, and I am, it would be because there was clearly so little chemistry between Carlyle and the players, not to mention between the players themselves. A few days in cottages country won't change that. And I'd be further concerned because we only have one line with any chemistry as well - and it looks like that's not changing any time soon. Ah well - dealing with those kind of problems is why we have coaches, isn't it?

    1. I do agree that if Carlyle is already on the hot seat in management's eyes, Gerund O', then they should have changed coaches over the summer. I just wonder if this group can be coached. We'll see this season- or when a new coach arrives.

    2. When you think that the team we've got today is all we've been able to put together since Brian Burke arrived... a team that's middle of the pack, at best... well, that's life in Leaflandia.
      On another note - congratulations on your 5 year anniversary, Michael! I know how much work it takes to keep a blog going, and to attract readers (!), and you've really done a magnificent job. This site is a must-read for me, not only for your commentary and historical insight, but also for the many terrific posts from the many VLMers I've come to "know" via your site. I often say the O'Malley Leaf glass is half-empty or half-full, but in this case it's filled to the brim as I toast your terrific forum for Leaf fans. Cheers!

    3. You're right, Gerund O', that all these years after Burke first arrived, we should be further along the curve. The bar is still not high enough here.

      And thank you for your kind words about VLM. You are one of the individuals who makes this forum go. I so appreciate that you not only comment thoughtfully on the current club, but also provide some old-time memories as well. I think you will agree that those who comment here make this forum what it is- a place where we can look at things differently, and still respect the other person's views.

    4. Cheers Gerund! You're right!

    5. Michael, you alwas say the bar is not high enogh. For whom?

      There is no question we, the fans, set the bar to low.
      For days I read fans and reporters who complain about the Leafs trying to trade Ashton.
      Others said a few weeks ago: he never played on the top line, he never had a chance to proof that he can score in the NHL.
      Ashton will never be a regular NHLer, He will never grab a regular spot on an NHL Team.
      If the Leafs can get something for him, they are the winner.
      We, as fans, have to stop being delusional about the "assets" we have.

      Then there is Clarkson. They say: He has to play on the powerplay to score.
      But what if the team has 4 wingers better than Clarkson? Still play him on the PP?
      They say: Put him on the top lines to get the worth out of him.
      But what if there are players that deserve playing the top lines more than him?

      Players have to earn their spots! Spots are no gifts.
      We have to realize that.

      We have to raise our bar to a level that we want players on our team that earned their spots. And stop wanting players on our team we fell in love with for some reason that is not related to their ability to play.

    6. I was nodding along with your comments, Marcus. I've long felt the "bar" was indeed too low. Fans are so desperate just to make the playoffs now. Ten years ago that was not good enough. We have to get back to that.

      And yes, we often do fall in love with and over-rate our players. A longtime Leaf supporter habit- myself included.

  3. Your argument relies entirely on the assumption that Carlyle's system ought to be successful, and that the reason it's been anything but is that the players haven't made a sincere effort to stick to his game plan. However, you (nor anybody else, really) have not been able to reasonably demonstrate this in the slightest.

    Color me thoroughly unconvinced.

    I'd say you're giving Carlyle far too much credit, but this really seems like you're just criticizing the players for *criticism's sake*. Don't get me wrong, this team is nowhere near being above reproach, and in so many different areas that it isn't even remotely difficult to find such an argument with actual substance. This just ain't one such argument.

    1. From what I've seen in the pre-season, Carlyle has made only minor tweaks to a flawed defensive scheme that was shown to be easily exploited last season.
      The jig is up on Carlyle's system. Any team that makes the right adjustments can play the Leafs like an accordion and have the Leafs quickly exhausted from scrambling in their own end.
      How does anyone expect players to buy into a system that they all know is flawed?

  4. michael the only additional point i would make is that it would be nice if coach randy would occasionally publicly admit/accept his own burden of responsibility and hold himself a bit more accountable when things go-wrong.

  5. Does anyone really see the players not "buying in" to the system? Has it occurred to anyone that perhaps the system is too difficult to implement? I mean, the amount of ice the wingers have to cover under his system is ridiculous... no wonder JVR / Kessel were exhausted all year...

  6. Michael,

    It seems to me, that for a long time this team suffers from a huge lack of responsibility. From the ownership group, to the GM, the coach, and to the players. Everyone has their finger pointed at someone else. Carlyle drones on and on about compete level, the players say they have to get better. Yet, no improvement is ever seen, talked about, but never seen. The team really should be called the Yetis, or the Loch Ness Monsters.

    I try to follow hockey pretty closely. Other teams have players and coaches that are constantly trying to improve their skills and knowledge. Babcock is trying to be a better communicator, better able to relate to the players of today. Randy is screaming about feeding the chickens and telling his players that they need to compete. I never hear about Carlyle meeting with other coaches, or attending clinics in order to improve his skillset as a coach. Just because he was good enough to win with the Ducks is no longer relevant. My calendar says 2014, not 2007.

    Crosby and Toewes go into every offseason committed to becoming more complete hockey players before the puck drops in the fall. Here in Toronto, we have Kessel happily telling the media that he barely skates before training camp, and that he spends most of his summer golfing, and fishing. I see stuff like this and shake my head. Is this really all we get out of our best player? Someone happy to relax after leading the team to 12th in a really terrible Eastern conference.

    So there I was last week watching a preseason Leafs game against Buffalo. Lo and behold what do I see as I'm watching the game? Colton Orr with an "A" sewn onto his sweater. I thought for a second that one of the actual hockey players was having a laugh at his expense, nope, just more misguided wisdom from the coaching staff I presume. Grit, heart, and character, are not substitutes for the ability to play hockey.

    What do the rest of you think about a team that got out shot by historic margins last season spending valuable pre-season time out in cottage country playing paintball? Colossal joke, is my take on the matter. How about this team spend some time figuring out how to get the puck back from the opposition, and not spend eons trapped in your own zone this season? I'm all for figuring out team building, and having some fun. It just seems to me that you should probably be doing the more important things first. Who knows maybe I'm out to lunch on this and the Leafs have figured it all out, and should compete with LA and Chicago for the Cup this year.

    It is no wonder to me that despite the almost complete turnover of the roster since the Wilson days, we still are left with a crappy team, nothing new here folks. It is almost unfathomable to me that no one on this team can be bothered to look in the mirror, take ownership of the situation and make strides to improve their hockey abilities.

    1. You've covered the bases, Jim. Accountability has to be a constant throughout the organization, but it has to be real accountability- not just more talk.

      Both the coaches and players have lots to reflect on. Good start to the season, bad start to the season, I'm not sure either will convince fans things are really different.

      I may be alone, but I sense many fans are waiting for the team to fail so Carlyle will be replaced. Maybe then we'll see if a new voice is really a long-term solution.

    2. I have long had the opinion that Carlyle is not the right coach for the Leafs. That hasn't changed in the least. There are so many more inspired, forward thinking individuals, who I believe would be better suited to be the coach. I would take no joy in the mans firing. I do expect this team to struggle again under his leadership. The Leafs have been a bad team under his tenure with the Leafs, despite the almost total overhauling of the roster.

      It is out there that the Leafs are shopping Carter Ashton in trade talks, trying to get a pick back for him instead of losing him on waivers. We did this last year with Colborne, and he put up some points for Calgary. If Randy is insistent that Orr, and or McLaren make the team at the expense of a young player who can actually play the game, and has some upside to boot. Then it is this mans' opinion that Carlyle deserves to be fired as the coach of this team. If he is that unable, or unwilling to see the change in the League since 2007, he has overstayed his welcome as an NHL coach.

      The Leafs cannot continue to lose assets to other teams, so that dinosaurs can be employed by this franchise.

    3. I was not happy to lose Colborne while retaining Orr and McLaren last year and I'd be just as dismayed to see us lose Ashton while pursuing the same mindset this year. I'm hoping that with Boston letting Thornton go, and the likes of Philly waiving Rosehill, we can only hope for a veto over the coach to allow our pugilists to hit the waiver wire.

      With injuries on the roster, we may see a delay in that eventuality, but I do think Ashton may be out of our plans anyway and wonder if a package deal may be in the works.

      When we think about the team bonding aspect of the foray into cottage country, I'm reminded of my own similar experience with a competitive group, where we did have some fun together, but started the season with 10 hour days working on our fundamentals and learning our updated repertoire for the coming year. It was a good and useful experience, however, I wonder if the CBA's 'protection' of the players' time is limiting the effectiveness of what would be better if it were more 'intensive'. There seem to be significant limitations on latitude for accomplishing much on this 'paintball excursion' - I can only hope that systems discussions were also part of the mix (out of the media spotlight) and that the players bonding included their own choice to 'talk amongst themselves' outside of CBA constraints.

      If that happened, then the trip might have been worthwhile after all. One can always hope :)

  7. Leafs Fan in MexicoOctober 2, 2014 at 7:39 PM

    Good comments all round! I just love this site!

    Michael, as a consultant to CEOs of major businesses, I am constantly amazed how many very talented people talk too much and hear very little.

    Is this syndrome at play with the Leafs? Are players listening is Carlyle? Or is he just unable to say something they can understand?

    Only an insider could say. But constantly being out shot and out puck controlled by a large margin should make it obvious to any analyst or player that greater defensive responsibility is in order. And as you said your last post, pretty much any NHL quality player can play decent defense if he wants to.

    The core of the team has shown its hand on this front, as it has from time to time played the whole ice pretty well for an extended number of games.

    Most of the time they just don't, won't or can't. Whichever the case, on ice leadership has tolerated or even colluded in a grand failure of accountability over at least the last three or four years... True leaders like Brind'amour, Gilmour, Sakic, Howe etc would have never accepted this lack of accountability and pride, no way... neither would any good coach.

    If Leafs are not solidly in contention for a playoff spot for over any one month period post mid- November, Shanahan won’t stand for it either, and we will see at least 1 big name traded and a Carlyle good bye party.

    1. I agree that at times the team shows it is more than capable of playing a complete game, Leafs Fan in Mexico. But too often we are left to wonder, as you point out, if Carlyle's message simply doesn't resonate. I don't doubt the system has been an issue, as some have pointed out here and elsewhere, but I think the responsibility for the problems the team still faces runs through the organization- and that includes the players.

      My sense is Shanahan is standing back and assessing what will and won't work- and changes may well be forthcoming, depending on how the team plays this fall.

  8. Hi Michael,

    the players have to be held accountable. There is no question. 100% agreed.

    What are the ways to do so?

    If talking leeds to nothing, the coach can send a player to the press box.
    In the game he can bench players that don't compete to his standards or do not follow the orders.
    Yes compete. We get all tired of Carlyle saying this word but I am afraid, compete is what seperates you.
    But if you take the last season, which player can Carlyle bench on a team that had three lines
    and only one line scoring on regular basis that makes them win some games. Who?
    Kadri? Yes he deserved to be benched a lot last season. But who should play insted of him? The first line? And how to punish a player that way if he does not care. Kessel does not back check. Bench Kessel?

    Carlyle can do it, but he is aware he will shoot himself in the foot.

    Players can held themselves accountable, as a group. If Kadri is floating around another player must make him aware. Lupul or Phaneuf or whoever has to go to him and say: Naz, that is not the way. We can not have that as a team. And they can find ways to make him pay in practice. That is the way it works on a healthy team. It is not often the Coach, it is the players that sort these things out.
    And they have to.

    And if there are players that are not willing to listen or giving it all, there is the ultimate way the management can go: trade them away!
    We may not get the same value back but it does not matter if there are players that are not willing to do everything to win, get rid of them. And if there are a lot of players then tear the thing down.
    Shanny will come out in the case and say: There is no other way I need five years.

    I said this before:
    After the Winnipeg game ( the game they were eliminated from the playoffs) Bozak was interviewed and he had so much fun he had trouble keeping it all together and prevent himself from smirking and giggling. He centers the first line he should be one of our leaders.

    Then there was the Carlyle statement about the young defenseman who thinks he is Weber or Doughty. Why is he still on the team?

    And then Kadri on locker cleanout day, who was delusional enough to say he had a good season!
    This is a team sport Nazem, and if you have 450 Points. Your team not winning means nothing!

    And some team mate has to tell him!

    1. On successful teams, there are often elder statesmen that can work with young players and explain the attitude and approach required to be successful, not just individually but as a team. Maybe the Leafs lack veterans who can play that role, Marcus.

    2. No, this is to cheap for me.
      Find a solution.
      It is not about elder statesman, it is about feeling responsible and that has nothing to do with age. If you care you can do something.
      How many hockey clubs have captains that got their C at a very young age.
      If you do not have leaders on your team grow yourself some.

      Carlyle can do something too. Listen to Doug Gilmour telling storys of Pat Burns benching him after two shifts in the first period because of a silly turnover. And he started with the big guys because the others have to follow.

      If I am on a line and I care about that line I feel responsible for our line to do the job. And I take care about it.

      At least you must expect your centers to lead the way, because of the nature of the position, but I said something about our two centers.

      Ray Ferraro said that he was between the benches in one of the exebition games, and he said that Leo came of the ice after every shift so exausted that he could barely stand on his feet. That's the way to go.

      And if I know I have no one to lead I give Jaromir Jagr what he wants and bring him in for a year.

  9. I agree that the team did not compete in the same manner they did in 12/13. Maybe the last game in the playoffs brought home to them that the systems employed weren't going to work no matter the effort. It's a very exhausting system and not very effective if it's all you're using. The players may have expected at least some tweaks, but that didn't happen. Instead, Nonis and Carlyle searched for grit. I thought they had quite a lot of that in 2013. Did they even have a team with enough talent to compete well last year? I don't think they did and that can't be blamed on the players, it's management responsibility, especially spending to the cap, to provide players that give them a chance. They spent the season without a good 2nd-line winger and practically no 4th line, though there were young options there. The problem with center depth became very clear as well as the defense situation. I find it in myself to blame a player who usage doesn't match his ability.

    I can see that there may have been resentment building throughout the season. Carlyle has shown impatience with injuries, and though you won't hear that in his interviews, I believe there was quite a lot of pressure for players to play through injuries or come back before they were 100%--Phaneuf, JVR, Kessel at the close of the season and Kulemin ( Randy showed his irritation at him for not wearing shot-protectors) Lupul and Bozak, who were re-injured shortly after returning, Bolland, who admitted he was only about 60%, Holland for severe lace-bite infection ( it was hardly Peter's fault but Randy was pretty mad about it) Bernier at the end which by then was pointless. Franson and Gunnar both played with hip issues, many members played through the flu and who knows how many other were playing with undisclosed injuries. This was an unhealthy team from the start.

    Players must listen to their coaches and they must compete to their best ability but I don't think this team, like many we've seen in the past years, was given a fair chance either by management or the coaching staff. We've discussed a few times which player is most essential to the Leafs having success. I think we all agreed that if any one of Kessel, Phaneuf, Bernier etc goes down, the Leafs will struggle. They are still far too short these types of quality players to compete with better teams.