He arrived with the team at one of its lowest recent points, the 18-wheeler carrying the Toronto Maple Leafs 2011-12 season having hurtled itself off a cliff and taken former coach Ron Wilson along with it.
What Randy Carlyle brought with him as Wilson’s replacement was a reputation that appeared to fit some of the key criteria required, including an attention to detail, discipline and tough, defensive play.
That he had won the Stanley Cup less than five years earlier, albeit with a stacked Anaheim Ducks team, only added to his credentials.
So what went wrong?
Why, after 142 regular-season games of Carlyle behind the bench, are the Leafs still a below average team, having won just 68 times and appearing well on their way an eighth season in the last nine out of the playoffs?
Everyone seems to have a theory, even Wilson himself, who finally spoke out about what he went through during the Leafs 1-9-1 collapse two years ago for the very first time on Monday.
“He’s got the same thousand-yard stare that I had,” Wilson told ESPN’s Pierre Lebrun, noting he could sympathize with Carlyle’s plight. “But at the end, you almost feel like it’s completely out of your control. Everything takes on a life of its own. It’s unbelievable.”
How the Leafs ended up here – losing eight straight in regulation for the first time since 1985 – is a difficult question, as there’s certainly a lot of blame to be distributed throughout the organization.
The team’s most glaring failing, however, has been its defensive play, and specifically its possession game, which has consistently worsened under Carlyle the last two seasons.
The most troubling thing on that front is that these are not new problems for the coach. While the Ducks were a middling team with the puck in the first two seasons after they won the Cup beginning in 2007-08, their possession numbers dipped sharply into the league basement beginning in 2009.
First they hit 47 per cent.
Then 46 per cent.
Then, in Carlyle’s last season in Anaheim, they won just seven of their first 24 games and were under 44 per cent.
He was fired.
When he reemerged in Toronto three months later, the same problem followed: The Leafs never seemed to have the puck.
“It’s like there’s a second and third chance generated before the Leafs get their hands on the puck,” explained Ray Ferraro, a former player turned TSN analyst who has been critical of Toronto’s style of play this season. “They can’t stop the cycle – that’s reason one why they get stuck in their zone.”
That’s not how many winning teams are built in the NHL these days, either, which is why much of the work in hockey analytics focuses on possession numbers that measure which team is in the offensive zone more than the other.
Toronto had appeared to buck that trend earlier in the season by getting a lot of timely goals and great goaltending, but even back then, Carlyle expressed concern over how they were playing.
“He may not be a numbers guy, but his eyes are telling him this is a bad thing,” Ferraro said. “He didn’t need to know the metrics. Or even accept them. His eyes are telling him ‘that’s not going to work.’ More than any time I can remember, holding the puck and keeping it away from the other guys has become the accepted leaguewide thought. Before, only Detroit really had that mentality... Now, because of the way the game is officiated, you have to possess it.”
Ferraro views Carlyle’s problem as a classic one of a coach that’s mismatched to his personnel, something that has been talked about ever since he was hired to remold what had been a quick, exciting offensive team that allowed a lot of goals under Wilson.
Two years later, many Leafs players still like to rush the puck and trade chances; Carlyle has always been viewed as a safe, lock it down type – although opinions on that are changing as Toronto has floundered in its own zone.
What that mismatch theory doesn’t explain, though, is why the Ducks began to struggle so mightily under his watch and why they suddenly rebounded – possession-wise and in the standings – when Bruce Boudreau took over.
It’s a shift that might simply speak to a failure to adapt to a changing roster and a changing league, something that has hit other veteran coaches in the NHL hard at various times.
One example there is Ken Hitchcock, who won the Stanley Cup with the Dallas Stars back in 1999 but was bouncing between teams and didn’t have nearly the same success during stops in Philadelphia and Columbus.
Hitchcock has since reinvented his style with the Western Conference leading St. Louis Blues, asking his players to play a hard-charging pressure and possession game that worked to great effect against the Leafs last week.
He had to evolve because the league did, opening up and becoming a speedier game, one where younger players flourish and the best teams rolled four lines.
That aspect, in particular, is in direct contrast to what Carlyle has attempted to do this season, as he has leaned heavily on his top lines and scarcely used his depth, just as he did when the Ducks won it all seven years ago.
Whether that is still a viable strategy is up for debate, but it hasn’t worked over the long haul for the Leafs this season.
That’s not to say Carlyle and his staff haven’t tried to change. They spent the entire Olympic break working on defensive play, and last week were attempting to incorporate elements of the Blues style into their game.
On Monday, the teaching continued, with a drill and whiteboard heavy practice that involved a lot of skating and instruction to prepare for the Calgary Flames the next night.
With few games left, however, all that preparation very well may be too little, too late. The Leafs have to win at least five and possibly all six of their remaining games to make the playoffs, and defensive miscues have defined most of their latest losses.
Carlyle hasn’t adapted nearly enough to the reality of the team he has, and it could cost them their season.
And, like Wilson before him, his job.
“When it’s going bad, those things snowball,” Wilson said, “and there’s not much you can do to stop it.”
“There’s no question that Hitch has adapted his view on what is successful from what it used to be,” Ferraro added. “He’s adapted and changed. I don’t know if Toronto’s changed anything this year because it’s looked the same since the beginning of the year.
“To not adapt in anything is slow death. Because everybody else is.”
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