July 15 2014 10:46AM
To a certain section of Leafs fans, Randy Carlyle has become a video game boss you just can't get around. You can break down the roster a million ways, complain about cap hits, project line combinations, even cut management some slack from time to time, but then you remember Carlyle's the guy in charge and you just want to quit.
I used to write more. Usually the off-season, even in the slow times, was when I came up with the most ideas for articles. Recently I started wondering why I couldn't think of anything to write. I mean, I'm still interested in the Leafs, and to be honest it's easy to talk about a terrible team, as painful as it is. Then I realized it's Carlyle. He's like the David Clarkson for writing creativity, just bringing everything in to a lull. He is writer's block.
I can't count how many discussions, whether in person or through social media, about how the Leafs can improve, go on for a while to eventually end with "Yeah, but until Carlyle gets fired..."
It seriously makes covering the team difficult.
Most of us assured ourselves that Carlyle would be fired after the Leafs' unbelievable (but totally believable) collapse this past season. And that was before Shanahan showed up. With Shanahan, someone who seemed to say all the right things upon hire, it felt even more certain that the head coach was getting canned. But somehow Carlyle managed to convince management that the collapse was on the players and their refusal to try hard at hockey. This is the franchise we've been dealt.
What makes this all the more bizarre at this point in the off-season is that the Leafs essentially cleared out everyone around Carlyle, recently brought in some new assistants, and didn't mention much about acquiring a "Randy Carlyle type of player" this summer. Nonis even completed moves that should force his coach away from using a facepunchers line, and decided to let Carlyle's secret weapon, Jay McClement, walk to the Hurricanes. Some nights it felt like McClement played the entire second and third periods while Carlyle employed his "strategy" for defending a lead.
So why on earth would you keep this guy around when what you've done around him points to how terrible he's been at his job?
I've talked about it a few times over beers in the backyard. One theory is that the Leafs simply want to eliminate the image they've gained as being too trigger happy when it comes to making changes. The team has long been ridiculed for giving up on prospects and picks, buying out players, buckling under the pressure of the city, and just making garbage moves trying to win as soon as possible. It hasn't worked, neither in the short or long term. I can somewhat buy this explanation (not that I agree with this approach in the slightest), especially since Carlyle seems to have established a good relationship with the Toronto media after what felt like Ron Wilson being at war with them two years. Carlyle hasn't received nearly as much criticism as his predecessors, as the attacks are usually deflected to his star players like Kessel and Phaneuf. This seems like an absolutely insane reason to keep a coach around, but you know, Leafs and all.
Another theory, which sort of ties in to the previous one, is that Carlyle will now have minimal control over tactics or systems, and newly minted assistants Horachek and Spott will do the heavy lifting in this regard, basically as a working audition for the main job. Carlyle will act as a leader and motivator, which perhaps is something he's good at. I don't know.
Nonis said nothing had been decided as far as responsibilities for new assistants, but said Carlyle would have larger role in special teams.— Jonas Siegel (@jonasTSN1050) July 11, 2014
Hiring guys when you haven't figured out what their jobs will entail seems like a poor idea, but who am I to question an NHL general manager right? Either way, pushing Carlyle to special teams signifies that the Leafs know they got absolutely murdered at even strength last season. Usually assistants are more heavily involved in the powerplay and penalty-kill, but based on the comments by Nonis, you can probably expect Horachek and Spott to be more involved in 5-on-5 systems than the guys they're replacing. They'll obviously have a lot of work to do in establishing something better.
If I had to speculate (and I will, because who's really going to stop me?) I'd say Shanahan and Nonis chatted with Carlyle and let him know that heads need to roll. Randy completely threw the players under the bus for not "buying in", Nonis believed it for some reason, and they decided to bring in new assistants to "change the atmosphere" since that's the most Leafs thing ever. Again, it seems like an attempt to let everyone know they're not panicking. In the backwards world of the Leafs, they panic when there's no need, then stand pat when they should be blowing some things up. And you wonder why they've got three playoff wins in over a decade.
Whatever happened, Carlyle managed to buy himself more time. But if the Leafs are trash to start and look as over-coached as they have the past couple years, Carlyle will have to go, since he's the only constant with a team whose talent level isn't poor enough to be dominated the way they have been for two full years. I'm assuming this can't go on much longer, but then again, here we are.