Maple Leafs After Season Report: Head Coach


Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

In part five of our continuing look at the Toronto Maple Leafs season we’re examining the moves that Randy Carlyle made behind the bench. We’ll look at how he coached, what his strategies were, his successes and his failures. We’ll also answer the burning question, should Randy Carlyle be back to coach the Maple Leafs next season?

Head Coach Randy Carlyle

Carlyle had a lot of ups and downs in his tenure as the man at the helm of the Maple Leafs. Back at the beginning of December I wrote an article about why Carlyle could be on the way out. We have more information now than we did, so let’s see if Carlyle should stick around.

We’ll start at last year’s offseason.

The Maple Leafs bought out Mikhail Grabovski and didn’t offer a contract to Clarke MacArthur, primarily because Carlyle didn’t like either player. While this falls on Nonis, Nonis made those moves to appease his coach.

MacArthur had 55 points in a full season. That would have put him third on the Leafs in scoring.

Grabovski had 35 points in 58 games. That still would have been good enough for seventh on the Leafs.

When the season started the Leafs jumped out of the gate with a great October, finishing the month 10-4 and sitting atop the East. Despite the great record, Carlyle stated even back then that the Leafs have systemic issues and give up too many shots.

So credit where it’s due, Carlyle recognized the problem the Leafs had at the very beginning of the year. Carlyle spoke about wanting to become a better puck possession team, which would lower shots against.

Despite that, he continued to ice a lineup filled with terrible puck possession fighters like McLaren, Orr and Fraser.

The problem is throughout the entire season he was never able to implement this dream system he wanted. In fact, he couldn’t implement that in his entire term with the Leafs.

James Mirtle tweeted a graph showing the rise in shots against since Carlyle came to Toronto.

That’s pretty telling. While Carlyle used buzz words like ‘compete level’ and blamed the effort the team put forth, the shots continued to grow. Furthermore part of the coach’s job is to make sure his team is ready to compete. If the team isn’t putting forth the energy, it’s because they’ve quit on the coach.

So while the shot total continued to go up, the possession numbers continue to go down.

Fans and media alike who watched Carlyles year end presser saw the same thing, an exasperated coach who doesn’t have the answer to what went wrong.

That’s not new, Carlyle has never had the answer to why his team performed so poorly defensively. That cost him his job in Anaheim and it may cost him his job here.

Not so shockingly, when Carlyle was fired and Bruce Boudreau came in, the Ducks saw their possession numbers rise. The Leafs, meanwhile, have seen their time with the puck diminish under Carlyle.

This is clearly a systematic issue. The defensive system Carlyle uses does not work and it would look far worse if not for superior goaltending provided by Reimer and Bernier over the last two years.

So with superior goaltending, the Leafs are regressing. With all factors pointing to Carlyle’s defensive system let’s take a look at just what went wrong.

Last year Maple Leafs hot stove broke down in detail exactly why Carlyle’s system doesn’t work here.

If you don’t want to take the time to go over that, here’s why the Leafs system doesn’t work in a picture.

The Leafs don’t cover people, they cover territory. Carlyle believes in a low zone defensive collapse. This means his wingers drop way back in the zone, to be able to help out defensemen. The theory behind this is to get extra support for a not very good defensive core and to minimize the chances of an opponent walking out with the puck from a battle in the corners.

Except that’s not proving effective. All a team needs to do is pass it back to the point and they’ve got tons of time to setup. By the time a Leaf forward gets to the point to challenge, the other team has sustained pressure and can pass it anywhere they like, or simply dump it back in. It’s what leads to extra long shifts in the defensive zone. Long defensive zone shifts lead to either taking a penalty to escape the situation, or a quality scoring chance for the other team.

It’s not a one time situation. If you look at the goals scored on the Leafs this year form sustained offensive pressure you’ll see a very similar pattern. 

In this instance, Clarkson and Raymond are a mile away from the defensemen, so when the puck gets controlled by the Oilers in this case any pass back will buy them tons of time.

When Bobby Ryan joined the Ottawa Senators he said one of the key systemic differences was learning to be higher in the defensive zone, so he can make a play on defensemen when necessary. He was quoted saying that Carlyle believes if the goalie can make the stop from the outside that they’d have to go and get a new goalie.

Reimer and Bernier proved they can stop the outside shots or blasts from the point, but it’s the second, third and fourth shots that cause issues.

That’s hardly Carlyle’s only major problem though. Simply put, the players don’t trust him.

Carlyle repeatedly turned on players he felt were taking too long to return from injury. Bolland, Bozak and Holland all got thrown under the bus at one time or another this season by Carlyle. In fact after not returning from a bad case of lace bite earlier in the year, Carlyle barely used Holland for the rest of the season, even before Bolland returned.

For the record, that injury put Holland in the hospital.

Even after the season was over, Carlyle still took pot shots at players, throwing Jake Gardiner under the bus for what he said in his exit interview.

Gardiner was hardly the only player to find Carlyle’s ire, as Reimer and Kadri were also frequent members of his doghouse.

Carlyle also showed an incredible lack of foresight when it came to which players should get big minutes. Jay McClement, who has next to no offensive talent was often put out late in games the Leafs were behind in or in overtime. McClement, a fourth line centre, played over 15 minutes in a game 39 times this year. He played 18 minutes or more 22 times. That’s inexcusable.

Carlyle also leaned on Fraser, Kostka and even Korbinian Holzer during his time as the Leafs bench boss in situations where they had no chance of succeeding at the expense of other, better, younger Leaf defencemen. TJ Brennan won the AHL equivalent of the Norris Trophy this year and wasn’t even given a game at the NHL level.

He barely played his fourth line, outside of McClement, which tired out his other three lines, particularly the top unit which ran out of gas by the end of the year.

He blamed the amount of injuries, but the Leafs actually were below average in man games lost.

He blamed the schedule, he blamed the players. He never once blamed his inability to put in place his phantom puck possession scheme.

Young teams are supposed to get better. The Leafs are one of the youngest in the league but took a large step back this season.

His record at the helm of the Leafs is 70-62-16. That’s 156 points in 148 games, or an average record of 39-34-9 each season. That’s 87 points a year. In the last decade no team in the East has made the playoffs with less than 90 points.

He’s also been the man in charge for two impressive Leaf collapses. While a good amount of the blame for those lands on the players, it should also land on the coach.

Carlyle has made some progress developing some of the younger talent on the Leafs, but not as much as you’d hope.

Carlyle may or may not be back next season. Nonis, and his proxy and cousin Darren Dreger, have said nothing but great things about Carlyle since the season ended and Shanahan was hired. It’s clear that Nonis likes Carlyle, despite everything said above.

On the other hand, evidence clearly shows that a different system would greatly help the Leafs. Carlyle is unlikely to completely revamp his system in the offseason, so a coaching change could be made. Only time will tell. For the purpose of grading Carlyle, he alienated players, claimed to want one system but in reality used it’s opposite, and has no answers as to why things didn’t work out. His job is to provide the answers, so the fact that he has no clue should tell you all you need to know.

Grade: F

That’s it for Carlyle, next week we’ll break down General Manager Dave Nonis, his decisions this year and last year and whether he should be back. If this is your first after season report, you can read about the top six forwards here, the bottom six forwards here, the defence here and the goaltending here.