Doubting the men in charge

Blake Murphy
January 13 2014 09:17AM

 

Toronto Maple Leafs fans appear to have hit a tipping point, and the vitriol and social media over the past few games has gotten extreme.

It's not difficult to see why - after a hot start, the Leafs have been the worst team in the NHL, full stop, since the beginning of November. Just five regulation wins and 29 points in the past 34 games, and now the Leafs find themselves barely hanging on to ninth in the Eastern Conference.

The playoffs seemed a foregone conclusion early, and those who supported the team's offseason moves appeared vindicated. The season certainly isn't lost with 36 games still to play, but the playoffs now seem like an "if things break right" proposition.

What follows is a look at some of the Twitter criticism of two key players, Dave Nonis and Randy Carlyle, and will at times contain offensive language (from respondents, not myself).

(Note: This was written before Sunday's game but has been slightly edited since. Despite a win that saw New Jersey lose more than Toronto win [their shootout record, woof], I think many of the feelings will remain the same.)

Randy Carlyle

The public firing criticism at head coach Randy Carlyle is easy to understand. While the "toaster" and "throw the toast" memes are born out of a coach trying hard to seem likable on television rather than any inherent incompetence, Carlyle's been a major part of the problem.

Jake Gardiner, who has been one of the Leafs best two defensemen in more games than he hasn't been, hit the press box for Mark Fraser. Nazem Kadri has been in and out of the doghouse so much that Snoopy is charging him rent. Peter Holland was sparsely used once Tyler Bozak came back, so the team called up red-hot Carter Ashton, just to sparsely use him (and have him fight, apparently).

Perhaps most egregiously, Colton Orr and Frazer McLaren have played in 35 and 21 games, respectively, each averaging less than six minutes of ice time, meaning the Leafs are often running with NHL-94 style, three-line roster set ups. If that was an actual plan based on elite conditioning and some strategy, I'd be willing to listen, but it's not - the team feels the need to dress enforcers, who rarely play and put additional pressure on the other three lines. The fact that McLaren and Orr are sixth and seventh on the team in offensive zone start percentage should be enough to get Carlyle a stern talking to from the higher-ups.

Carlyle has won a Norris and a Stanley Cup, yes. Those things can not be taken away from him, and his present struggles certainly don't mean he did a bad job and got lucky with the Ducks (but look at them now!). Instead, Carlyle seems inflexible in his style, unwilling or unable to adapt to a lack of success with that style, and completely incapable of leveraging skill players.

But he's probably not going anywhere any time soon, so we're left to complain. And complain we did, like on Friday when I asked twitter to describe him in five words (this got a lot of response, but here are a few of the best and/or over-the-top ones; sorry if your's didn't make it - it was either too profane, someone else beat you to it or I got lazy embedding all these and you're the innocent victim).

Dave Nonis

The criticism of general manager Dave Nonis is just as easy to understand, but far more hypocritical for some. Despite a few of the writers on this site and many on Leafs Twitter disliking the offseason moves, there were a lot of people excited by the David Clarkson signing, okay with the Tyler Bozak extension and not at all mad about the Jonathan Bernier trade.

And to be fair to Nonis, none of those moves on their own were indefensible. I thought Clarkson would be better than this, but that the term and annual value of his deal would start to look terrible in year three or four, not year one. And Bernier has been excellent most nights, though his career save percentage is still very similar to James Reimer's (not to mention that Ben Scrivens has been awesome, on and off the ice).

As for the Bozak decision, well, 19 points in 23 games is pretty good. You can't fault the GM for injuries, really, and Bozak has produced points and narrative for HBO. But he's still not a top line center, his faceoff win rate is way down, and they're essentially paying Bozak double, since they cut ties with Mikhail Grabovski - he of 32 points in 42 games - to be able to sign him. Oh, and Clarke MacArthur has 33 points, as well.

All of this is to say, the team has kind of turned out as some cautioned. The biggest concern is that Nonis continues to build the team in the image of the coach, who isn't doing a good job. They've moved skill for size or intangibles in several places to appease Carlyle and build his system, but it's not working. If Carlyle goes, the roster will once again need reshaping.

Again, not to revise history - I didn't think they'd be quite this bad. But a lot of the moves Nonis has made look bad in retrospect, and, like with Carlyle, people were happy to describe him in five words when I asked as much on Saturday.

And the best two...

So, yeah...people are pretty fed up. While some have criticized the fans for turning their back on a team "so quickly," the frustration can be summed up with two images:

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Blake is a news editor at The Score and also writes basketball for Raptors Republic and baseball at Fangraphs/Rotographs. As such, he doesn't write at TLN nearly as much as he should. Give him a follow @BlakeMurphyODC.
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#1 Dtrav
January 13 2014, 10:41AM
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Great read as usual, everyone does a great job on this site, its makes my day! I wonder at what point Nonis starts forcing Carlyle to ice a more competitive 4th line, and if this scenario is at all possible? Holland played great here in St Johns this weekend, was a real force out there on the ice, and i know he was sent down to get more playing time, i find it hard to believe that Nonis just wont tell Randy to just play this guy more, so as to see if he is actually a decent player, and dont even get me started opn the misuse of poor ole Ashton, jesus what a sin. This team is taking years off my life with the frustration they cause me every game, hard to watch, almost at the point where I dont even want to watch now.

You folks keep up the good work, maybe someday you all will be taken seriously....probably when the Leafs win the cup.....you see where I'm going with this? hahaha

Cheers!!

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#2 STAN
January 13 2014, 12:14PM
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I second the notion from Dtrav (above) that this is a wonderful site, allowing we jaded and skeptical Leafs supporters to vent, usually without personal insults.

As for Dave ANonis, his temporary appointment as GM after Burke was sacked over a personality clash was totally understandable (although it could be argued that a TOTAL cleaning of house was more appropriate). But then for MLSE and Tim Leiweke to hand Nonis a five-year extension based on such a small sample size was a bizarre business decision. That, and all the other managers Burke brought in are still there.

It's the one HUGE and inexplicable mistake Leiweke has made, considering the shrewd moves he seems to have made with the Raptors (see Masai Ujiri) and Toronto FC.

Now that business decision regarding Nonis is coming back to cripple the team now and for years to come. Unless, of course, Leaf Nation actually believes that you can build a core around Dion Phaneuf, Phil Kessel and David Clarkson.

AA GM worth his salt would find a way to unload seemingly untradeable contracts and begin a REAL rebuild.

I say it's probably too late; that Leiweke is just as stubborn as Burke and will never admit that his Nonis decision was a mistake; that the Leafs will makes tonnes of dough during his (Leiweke's) eight-year contract period and so… WHO. REALLY. GIVES. A. DAMN.

The bottom line for MLSE is this - shareholders will be ecstatic, dividends will keep on flowing and Blue and White loyalists will still be there, come HELL (Nonis/Carlyle/Phaneuf/Clarkson) or high water (Kessel/Kessel/Kessel).

Cheers.

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#3 Cam Charron
January 13 2014, 12:15PM
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Great stuff Blake.

I'm not as close to basketball or baseball as you, but do you get the sense that in other sports, "skill" is looked at as the replaceable talent rather than "grit" or any intangibles measures there are?

Or is that just a hockey thing?

The number of times I've heard "sure, Grabovski may be a better player than David Bolland, but he doesn't fit as well on a Randy Carlyle third line" drives me nuts. Most baseball people I read don't seem to look at how Prince Fielder is going to work in the Texas Rangers' system, but how many home runs he's going to give them and for how long...

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#5 Stephan Cooper
January 13 2014, 04:29PM
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@Blake Murphy

I don't know anything about Basketball, but I also hear that Gay was something of the Jack Johnson of the NBA. Somebody who looked good but stats showed was actually awful.

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#6 Jeremy Ian
January 13 2014, 05:16PM
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@Blake Murphy

"....McLaren and Orr are sixth and seventh on the team in offensive zone start percentage..."

Those are shocking figures. Idiocy, sheer idiocy.

I am with Cam on the grit-seekers. It's always struck me as an inversion of Kahneman's argument about the role of skill and luck promoting deviations from the mean; grit ensures you'll go the other way. And what's really perverse is that grit-lovers tend to read the failure of their team's grit as signs that they need more grit! Can't get enough of that stuff.

Why is hockey so prone to this type of arguing, and thus vulnerable to coaching traps like the one that RC has plunged us into?

On the other hand, we're also vulnerable to thinking that coaching changes "cause" returns to the mean for suffering teams like the Leafs (or Jets), so that when things do eventually turn around after a coaching change, we attribute the improved fortunes to....the coaching change!

Still, I think Carlyle should go. No expletives needed. Just sack him.

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#7 WesternDP
January 13 2014, 05:39PM
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"Describe Randy Carlyle in five words."

Not as good, this season.

Last year, it seemed like Carlyle had the team well prepared and was making adjustments and line matching to get every possible advantage.

I don't see that this year.

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#8 Mironovs Nose
January 13 2014, 05:49PM
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I've got to disagree with you when you say that the Leafs offseason moves weren't indefensible, although I will agree that many Leafs fans didn't mind them.

The term and cap hit of Clarkson's contract looked terrible from the get go, although I expected the first few years to go better.

Bozak's point totals have been good this year but I'm nowhere near convinced that he's any better than he's looked so far in his NHL career, which isn't very good. I was happy with the Bolland deal in part because I thought it meant Bozak was gone.

The Grabovski buyout makes me violently angry every time I think about it and has since it was announced. Everyone involved in that decision should be fired.

The Bernier deal is more defensible but taken with their other moves made no sense to me. The Leafs offseason moves focused on the wing and goal, their two areas of strength. Their weakest areas, D and C were ignored and weakened respectively.

Good luck and fantastic goaltending covered up for the bad moves for the first part of the season now I think we're seeing just how bad a job Nonis and Carlyle have done.

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#9 SchulzEricT
January 14 2014, 07:49PM
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Blake Murphy wrote:

It's less a thing in baseball, for sure, it's usually just an ancillary consideration (the closest thing would be factoring in ball park effects in the place of "system," but that's far more about optimizing talent than replacing it with intangibles).

It's a bit more present in basketball because one player can have such a dramatic effect on how the team operates - the Raptors are a nice example right now, having traded perhaps their most "talented" player and turning a corner right after. Part of that is due to improved depth, but a good chunk is also a better optimization of the rest of the pieces.

Now, that's not the same as saying the Raptors are better because they replaced Gay's talent with Greivis Vasquez' friendly demeanor and Chuck Hayes' work ethic.

Long answer short is no, it seems far less prevalent in other sports, though it's there to some degree in basketball.

Yeah, you put talent in quotes because he's not a good basketball player, and never really has been. They traded away a player who was bad but looks good to some people for some reason (stats are for losers, his very basic stats looked okay as long as you looked at points and avoided shots.. and every other stat).

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