He was on the Toronto Maple Leafs bench for all three trips down heartbreak lane, beginning with the 18-wheeler off the cliff in 2012 and ending with this season’s disastrous 12 losses in 14 games collapse to end the year.
The first time it happened, Scott Gordon feared for his job, as Ron Wilson was fired and a new coach (Randy Carlyle) was brought in.
By the third, especially when Brendan Shanahan was hired as president late in the year, he knew it was over.
“When Brendan came in, I felt 100 per cent there was going to be a change,” Gordon said in a wide-ranging interview from his home in Atlanta, the only comments to date from any of the Leafs three assistant coaches who were fired last week. “And it was very likely that it could be all of us. I just had a feeling that that was going to happen.”
In all, Gordon spent three years in Toronto, with his first season under Wilson a similar situation where two assistant coaches had previously been shown the door.
A former NHL head coach – he spent two years in that role with the New York Islanders before the Leafs job – and long-time AHL head coach, Gordon was a quiet presence in the Leafs organization. A goaltender during his playing days with the Quebec Nordiques, he took a keen interest in the offensive side of the game and was typically in charge of Toronto’s power play, one of the organization’s few consistent strengths.
Fiercely loyal to Randy Carlyle, who survived last week’s purge, Gordon said he believes part of what led to this season’s collapse was simply a sense of complacency among the players.
After taking the Boston Bruins to Game 7 in the playoffs last spring and starting the season 10-4-0, he explained, the team never fully heeded their coaches’ message about the way they were winning games.
“We never were happy with the way we were playing,” Gordon said of the coaching staff, which was made up of Carlyle, Dave Farrish and Greg Cronin the last two seasons. “Whether we won or lost, we felt there was a concern there… “As coaches, we tried to address it and get the players to understand what we saw, but at the end of the day, they’ve got to go out and play.”
Gordon also felt losing Leo Komarov to the KHL in Russia hurt the Leafs considerably, as did injuries to Jonathan Bernier, Dave Bolland and Mark Fraser at various points during the year.
As for all the criticism the Leafs system took this season – primarily due to the fact they were badly outshot right from the start – Gordon felt some of it was warranted and some wasn’t, mentioning specifically that Carlyle’s relationship with young players like Jake Gardiner and Nazem Kadri wasn’t nearly as rocky as had been reported throughout the year.
“There’s this perception that Randy doesn’t like Jake Gardiner, and it’s comical,” Gordon said. “I can’t tell you how many times that Randy has said that the thought of trading Jake can’t even be discussed until he’s played 300 games [in the NHL].
“He personally thinks it takes 300 games for a defenceman to get to the point where you can make a decision on them.”
Despite how it all ended, Gordon has no regrets about coaching in Toronto, calling it one of the biggest thrills of his career. He hopes to catch on with another NHL team as an assistant coach or to helm his own AHL team in time for next season.
“I’ve been a hockey fan my whole life and part of the sport since I was three years old and I didn’t realize the magnitude of how passionate the people in Toronto were about their team,” Gordon said.
“Going into other buildings and seeing that half the crowd is cheering for us was amazing… I loved it and consider myself very lucky to have been there. It was awesome. It really was.”
What follows is an edited transcript of the interview with Scott Gordon:
Q. First of all, what’s your perspective on what went wrong this season?
“Coming off the playoffs last year, one of the things we talked about was making sure our team wasn’t complacent. But when we went through training camp this year and into this season, we never were happy with the way we were playing. Whether we won or lost, we felt there was a concern there.
“Kind of like the year before, Ron’s last year, when it started to snowball, you’re doing everything you can to stop it but it spins out of control. The next thing you know, you’re like what happened?
“We just never took that momentum [from making the playoffs in 2013] at the start of the year and took advantage of it. It wouldn’t surprise me if, just like [the collapse] was a wakeup call two years ago, the team goes through that growth process again and realizes what we did wasn’t good enough.”
Q. You allude to it and Carlyle talked about it frequently, but it was clear overall that the team’s poor play wasn’t just at the end as part of the collapse; it continued to an extent all season, even when your record was quite good. Were you ever able to put a finger on why?
“Well, the makeup of the team wasn’t that different, but the players who didn’t play for us were a different kind of players. You look at Leo Komarov and his contributions, Mark Fraser and his contributions – he gets hurt and isn’t able to get back to the same level of play – those are two guys off the top of my head. Not just in the game, but how they practised, the tone that they set for our team with that style of play. We missed that.
“They could have been here and the same thing would have happened, but they were just definitely for me guys that competed all the time and when you look at our season, we didn’t compete with the consistency that you need to to be successful. You look at the playoffs now and that’s at a whole other pace. It’s not that our guys weren’t capable of it. They showed it last year, and the majority of them were here. It’s disappointing. [He goes on to add that the injuries to Dave Bolland and Jonathan Bernier were also huge issues.] “For me, it’s kind of what I said as far as trying to not go into [the season] complacent. But I think there was a little of that there. As coaches we tried to address it and get the players to understand what we saw, but at the end of the day, they’ve got to go out and play. And it just didn’t click all of the time.”
Q. The system the coaches had in place took a lot of criticism all year – was what you were trying to get the team to do changing as the season went on or was it just not being executed properly?
“We changed things all year. There’s something to be said about that, too. Do you change what you’re doing or do you keep working to get back to what you did well before? There’s a balance there. I can’t tell you as a staff, in my life, I’ve never had as many meetings on what we had to do to try to get us to play better and have more success. We spent hours talking and coming up with ideas and looking at video.
“That’s one of the things with Randy – if there’s a change to be made, he’s very open to it. He’ll step back and say ‘you know what we’re not doing something right. We’ve got to try to fix it. What can we sell to the team to try to make it better?’ He’s definitely not a stand pat guy. On the outside, you don’t see the changes, because if they don’t work, you don’t know if they were changing or not. We tried. At the end of the day, we just didn’t get the results.”
[Examples of what they changed at various points: (a) whether to commit the defenceman to the front of the net or free them up to attack the puck, (b) both the neutral zone and offensive zone forecheck were altered two times, (c) responsibilities for defencemen when pressing in the offensive zone.]
Q. Do you ultimately feel like a scapegoat for what went wrong given the assistants were the only ones let go?
“The way I look at it is, I enjoyed my time in Toronto. I can’t say enough about working with Randy and how impactful his thought process [was on me]. How to prepare a team, how he handles himself in the locker room and I always thought he did a pretty good job with the media, which is never an easy thing.
“Whether we’re the scapegoats or not… I mean realistically when Brendan [Shanahan] came in, I felt 100 per cent there was going to be a change, and it was very likely that it could be all of us. It could be the assistants. Mentally, I just had a feeling that that was going to happen. If we’re the scapegoats, we’re the scapegoats. That’s their prerogative. All I know is Randy pushed for us to get an extension last year and his value in us as assistant coaches. Dave Nonis and [management] were throughout the entire time always supportive of what we were trying to do. I’m not going to blame anybody. At the end of the day, we didn’t make the playoffs.”
Q. One aspect of your year that became highly controversial was the analytics movement and its evaluation of your team. Were you aware of that at all and how do you weigh in on it?
“I don’t think anybody likes to get outshot. And no matter if we won the games, there was always this feeling [among the coaches] of what do we have to do to cut this down? That was obviously an ongoing conversation that we had throughout the year.
“But it doesn’t mean that you’re a good team or a bad team if you get outshot half the time. There are teams that get 20 shots in [some] games and they get outshot but they still win.
“The reason why teams get outshot is it’s not so much about defensive play as it is about offensive play. If you’re spending more time in the offensive zone, it’s harder for the other team to get more shots. It’s a simple concept but that’s the truth of it. The best team I ever coached in the American League, we led the league in shots for and shots against was probably top 10. It wasn’t because we were a great defensive team; we didn’t play in our zone.
“If you can commit yourself to being diligent in the neutral zone and making good decisions in the offensive zone, you’re going to get more offensive opportunities. When Dan Bylsma took over [in Pittsburgh], they were a perfect example of D up to the wing and chip and go get it. D to D, up to the wing and go get it. Obviously offensively we scored goals but there was an opportunity to score more goals if you’re consistently getting the puck in the offensive zone.”
[He adds that he liked to watch playoff games and track what good teams like St. Louis were doing, counting turnovers and how many times they got the puck deep into the offensive zone compared to their opponents.]
Q. Why did the Leafs ultimately struggle to play that kind of game?
“We have a lot of guys that can make plays and there’s a confidence that [they have] when things are going well that you think you can make plays all the time. At the end of the day, there’s a time and place to do it. We actually got better as the season went on as far as turnovers. But it’s not just the turnovers. You’ve got to find a way to maintain speed through the neutral zone to get on pucks in the offensive zone when you are dumping it in.
“Boston’s as good as anybody as far as going back and picking apart a team. We struggled in that first game in the playoffs last year – we didn’t have a forecheck. We were playing too slow. That was the thing that really changed in the series. We established a forecheck and that stemmed from being better in the neutral zone. Now all of a sudden we’re better there and you become better defensively. And you haven’t done one thing to your defensive zone coverage.”
Q. How will you look back on your experience in Toronto?
“I’ve been a hockey fan my whole life and been a part of the sport since I was three years old and I didn’t realize the magnitude of how passionate the people in Toronto were about their team… I felt disappointed for them because we didn’t finish the way we wanted.
“[Walking around town and seeing people wearing jerseys and talking about the team after the collapse], you know they’re thinking about it: The Leafs aren’t going to the playoffs. It put the icing on the cake of what a crappy way it was to finish the year. It emphasized to me how great it is there when you win – I don’t think there’s another market that compares to it. I’m glad I was fortunate to be a part of it… “Going into other buildings and seeing that half the crowd is cheering for us was amazing. It’s a great place. I have no regrets. I loved it and consider myself very lucky to have been there. It was awesome. It really was.”
On captain Dion Phaneuf
“I love Dion’s passion for the game. He’s a high energy guy. I don’t think it’s an easy position he’s in as captain, and he did a pretty good job with the demands. Where he is today is a lot further along than when he first came to Toronto.”
On Nazem Kadri
“He’s a good kid. I know that the media has a tendency to think that he has a hard time with Randy but just being in the office I know Randy knows how talented Nazzy is and he respects his abilities. He’s just trying to get him to be a more complete player – and it’s nothing more than that.”
On Jake Gardiner
“There’s this perception that Randy doesn’t like Jake Gardiner, and it’s comical. I can’t tell you how many times that Randy has said that the thought of trading Jake can’t even be discussed until he’s played 300 games. He personally thinks it takes 300 games for a defenceman to get to the point where you can make a decision on them. Here’s somebody who knows there’s going to be growing pains. Is he hard on them? Does he take away ice time? Yes. All he’s trying to do is make them accountable and try to get them on the right path.
“It never gets played out in the media that that’s his approach; I never heard anybody talk about that. When you think about it, where Jake has come from, in his first year to now – to me, in the last 20 or so games, a lot of nights he was our best player. You can say what you want, but it’s Randy putting him over the boards for 20-plus minutes a game. He’s a talented kid. And it’s a lot because of Randy’s patience with him.
“Part of a maturity of a player is just understanding when to cut your losses. It doesn’t have to be a highlight reel play made every time.”
“I’ll tell you what, when he came in for those last 20 games [when Ron Wilson was fired in 2011-12], I didn’t think I was going to be back. I didn’t know how that was going to play out, if he wanted his own people – but he was so receptive over that summer. I really liked his approach with how he went into the lockout and the preparation we went through with systems and players. Just little things.”