Always Crashing in the Same Car: Randy Carlyle and the Toronto Maple Leafs

By: Dan Grant

“Well, this is happening,” Leaf Nation groaned.

On Thursday May 8th, the Toronto Maple Leafs organization, headed by new President Brendan Shanahan and Yes-I’m-Still-The-General-Manager Dave Nonis, decided to give publicly maligned coach Randy Carlyle a two year contract extension. There were myriad reactions to the extension but the consensus from most that I talked to seemed to be something between disbelief and disappointment. This team finished the season 2-12, regressed from an exciting return to the playoffs in 2012-13 and, in spite of breakout campaigns from a couple young stars, generally disappointed across the board.

How does that season, described at its best points as ‘slightly better than mediocre’ and at its worst, ‘toxic waste’, merit putting further confidence in the man who ostensibly was steering the ship? This is what the downtrodden and surly bunch known as Maple Leafs fans want to know.

Certainly, this decision creates more questions than it answers. So let’s take a look at the most burning ones, the ultimate factors that will determine whether or not retaining Carlyle was a sneaky smart move or another misstep by one of pro sports most overly scrutinized franchises.

Carlyle is all smile after signing a 2-year deal.

Carlyle is all ‘smile’ after signing a 2-year deal.

1) First thing’s first: Is there any way in hell this can work?

On a grand scale, you have to say ‘of course’. Anything has a chance of working. As for a tangible precedent? I don’t think you’ll find many, if any. Typically, when a new executive comes in, as Shanahan has, they clean house and bring in their own team of guys. Shanahan has already used the words ‘culture change’ to describe what he thinks needs to be addressed first with the Leafs. How can you change the culture when you retain the coach, the general manager and the majority of your ‘core’ are under long term contracts? Aren’t those the people who have instilled the poor culture in the first place?

It seems like Shanahan is intent on holding the players accountable, something that is refreshing and possibly a bit naïve. Not that the players aren’t to blame; it’s just difficult to jettison your whole team when they don’t perform, especially in the salary cap era. It’s much easier to blame the coach. If this move is indicative that Shanahan isn’t afraid of taking the road less-travelled, then it’s something I applaud, naïve or not.

As for the move itself, well, the Leafs have fired Carlyle’s three lead assistant coaches, only one of whom was hired by Carlyle himself; the other two were holdovers from the Brian Burke/Ron Wilson anti-glory years. Dave Nonis made it abundantly clear that he will have a large hand in hiring the new assistants, which ostensibly means that Shanahan will have a hand in thing as well. Carlyle hasn’t been given free reign to continue things as they were. He’s publicly admitted to making mistakes at the beginning of the year and misjudging certain players. This is the same coach who won a Stanley Cup with Anaheim in 2007 and got the Leafs back to the playoffs in 2013. Are there warning signs? Sure. But if you’re still not sold, answer me this…

Carlyle implores Leaf fans to think about it.

Carlyle implores Leaf fans to think about it.

2) Who in the name of Scotty Bowman do you replace him with?

Honestly. Tell me, I’m listening. For all the detractors and all the people bitching and moaning about this extension, I haven’t heard one good suggestion. The name that the whiners inevitably come up with is Mike Babcock ‘or someone like that’. And that would be fantastic. He was the coach of Team Canada at the last two Olympics, a Stanley Cup winner in Detroit, still relatively young and hungry. He’d be a perfect fit. The problem is, beyond the fact that he’s under contract for another year, that Detroit is an organization with a great owner, great front office, great fans, solid young core and a sterling reputation. Why would he leave to come to the train wreck that is Toronto? And even if he wanted to, as stated, he’s still under contract for another year!

I’ve heard suggestions of Barry Trotz (being a really nice guy doesn’t make up for 15 years of mediocrity in Nashville) and John Tortorella (no thank you!). I’ve heard Lindy Ruff from someone who was unaware that he is now the head coach of the Dallas Stars. I’ve heard Kevin Dineen, coach of the gold medal Canadian women’s team and recent Florida Panthers flame-out. I’ve also heard (and possibly said) that we should go for a ‘young guy’, to give someone new a chance to cut their teeth instead of recycling the same old retreads.

I like the sentiment behind the last statement but there’s a problem. The core of this team is built to win now. Its best pieces – Phil Kessel, James van Riemsdyk and Jonathan Bernier – are players that are right in, or just entering their primes. If there was a ready and waiting young candidate I’d be all for it but I haven’t heard one. In fact, I haven’t heard of any suggestion that would be anything other than change for the sake of change.

The bottom line is that Carlyle was only given a two year deal. You can’t give him a one year contract, because then he’s a lame duck coach and it’s a wasted season. The players know what a one year contract means (impending doom) and if Carlyle is going to try to institute the stable culture change Shanahan and Nonis are looking for, he needed the second year tacked on, to help perpetuate the illusion of stability. But if there isn’t measured improvement this season? Carlyle will be fired. His money doesn’t count against the cap. The Leafs are rolling in it. And if he’s fired, guess who is a free agent next off-season? Mike Babcock. So for those of you who want him, this is your avenue. It’s win-win. Either Carlyle is a roaring success and this move works, or he’s not and gets fired next year, freeing up the team to pursue your golden boy. So shut up already.

"You mean I have to listen to this guy for another two years?"

“You mean I have to listen to this guy for another two years?”

3) But what about this year? How can you have a culture change without changing the head coach? Where’s the accountability?! I feel like I’m taking crazy pills!

Settle down. News has already leaked to the media about the Leafs shopping captain Dion Phaneuf, hard, and there have even been suggestions that the Leafs will eat some of the salary owed, despite signing Phaneuf to a mammoth 7 year, 49 million dollar deal just a few months ago. Trading a contract that hasn’t even kicked in yet and offering to pay some of it speaks volumes about how Phaneuf’s value to the Leafs has dipped. Whether it’s true or not, it’s a signifier that Shanahan isn’t afraid to make bold moves. Phaneuf is victim of being miscast as a number 1 defenseman. I’ve written it here before; he’d be excellent as a number 2 or 3 guy, someone playing 22 minutes a game and on the power play. He’s not Chara-Keith-Weber-Suter-Doughty level. He never was. He put up comparable stats because he plays so many minutes but his actual value is hurt by being in that role. He’s more Seabrook-Boyle-Campbell level. He’s an offensive specialist and competent defenseman who was first over-hyped in Calgary because of his physical style and big shot. Now that he’s older, the raw physicality has diminished and everyone knows the shot is coming. There is plenty of interest in the guy, because he’s a useful player but a cornerstone he ain’t.

That’s how you change the culture without changing the coach. Unfortunately for Phaneuf, named captain prematurely by that glorious Burke/Wilson tandem, there’s no way for him to stay in town and save face. They can’t strip him of the C and keep him around and they can’t have him continue as the de-facto face of the franchise. This wasn’t a mistake Carlyle made, it was one he inherited.

The Leafs are likely going to see huge roster turnover this off-season, Phaneuf aside. The entire third and fourth lines will likely depart for other pastures (green or not). Dave Bolland, Mason Raymond, Nikolai Kulemin, Jay McClement and Troy Bodie are all unrestricted free agents, as is Paul Ranger on defense. Carter Ashton is a restricted free agent, as are Jake Gardiner and Cody Franson on defense. I wouldn’t be surprised if every name I just mentioned was gone come the fall. The Kessel-JVR-Tyler Bozak top line will likely remain intact, but Joffrey Lupul and Nazem Kadri are prime trade fodder as well. The Leafs are set to have some legitimate cap space, as buyouts for Colby Armstrong and, brace yourself, Darcy goddamn Tucker are finally off the books next season.

A team that is set to be so in flux is a team that could use a bit of stability. Randy Carlyle can provide that. He’s hard nosed, he has clear expectations and he has a track record of success, this past season aside. People disparage his success in 2012-13 because of the way it ended in Boston or because of the shortened schedule – if you’re discounting that, you should take 2013-14 with a grain of salt as well. It was an Olympic year, which messes with conditioning and scheduling nearly as much as the lockout did, particularly towards the end of the season.

If Randy Carlyle wasn’t the current Leafs coach, a guy like Randy Carlyle is the guy I would say a team like the Leafs needs. Proven success, a clear voice and a defined style, a guy who can work with veterans and young players alike. All on a short term commitment.

If we’ve already got him, why get rid of him?

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