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James Mirtle
James Mirtle

Mirtle: Randy Carlyle under fire as Leafs hit skids again Add to ...

There’s no place to hide for an NHL coach.

At least not for long.

So there Randy Carlyle was, out in the open, humiliated in front of nearly 20,000 fans and who knows how many more viewers on television, as he stood on the bench at the Air Canada Centre on Tuesday night and his team imploded in front of him.

Randy Carlyle on his job security after Leafs losses (CP Video)

First it was 4-0.

Then 5-0.

And they just kept coming, until it was 8-0 for the Nashville Predators with almost 15 more minutes to continue the beat down.

The Toronto Maple Leafs coach at that point?

“You get a headache,” Carlyle said quietly. “It’s a stress headache. You get lots of them in this game.”

He found a brief respite from the spotlight after this one, a 9-2 loss that was the first time the Leafs have allowed nine goals since 1991. (Carlyle was a 35-year-old defenceman for the original Winnipeg Jets back then.)

As reporters gathered in the media room, after captain Dion Phaneuf and alternate captain Stephane Robidas had taken a few probing questions, the press waited and waited for Carlyle to emerge.

Normally this happens immediately. Not this night.

The beleaguered coach was alone in a back room somewhere in the bowels of the arena, no doubt attempting to calm himself.

He was also likely told by the team’s PR staff about some of the questions he would face.

One media member in particular had already asked numerous players if they were playing to get their coach fired.

“F--- no,” defenceman Cody Franson blurted out immediately.

“No,” Phaneuf said plainly.

“We can’t blame the coach because we were playing awful,” added Roman Polak.

“You guys are going to discuss lots,” Carlyle responded when asked about his job security. “I understand that. As I’ve said before, when you get in this business you better understand that when things don’t go well there’s going to be a huge amount of scrutiny and attention paid to your position.”

There certainly will be now. And frankly it’s overdue.

Tuesday’s blowout was the 167th regular season game Carlyle has coached the Leafs. This was their 88th loss which, compared to the 79 wins, stands out mainly because of how staunchly management has defended his tenure despite this fact.

It’s been a tenure in which the Leafs have exhibited all of the shortcomings of a poorly coached team, too, with poor efforts, poor structure and poor resolve displayed so often.

The organization’s new analytics department, meanwhile, could produce pages and pages of data highlighting that Carlyle-coached teams – going back to the end of his Anaheim days – have been some of the most porous defensively in the league. (The Ducks were a 46 per cent possession team in his last 200 games there, third worst in the league.)

This season alone there have been five blowout losses in only 19 games and very little explanation for how or why it continues to happen from the staff.

The Leafs are also fourth last in the NHL in shots against per game and in the bottom five in score-adjusted possession metrics.

“How can you sugar coat what happened with our group tonight?” Carlyle said. “The first two periods we had 35 turnovers. Seventeen in the second and 18 in the first. You can’t win in any league or any level of hockey playing that loose with the puck.”

The answer to “loose” play appeared to be that the team needed dump the puck into the offensive zone more, a strategy that had backfired badly only two weeks earlier against the Coyotes, in one particularly glaring example.

It’s also a style of play that many NHL teams have moved away from the last few years.

“We refused to put the puck in and simplify what we needed to do in certain situations,” Carlyle said at one point.

His players were even more blunt. And hopeless.

“It seems like the walls are caving in on us,” Franson said.

“Again we got crushed,” top scorer Phil Kessel lamented. “We obviously didn’t play well.”

At times late last season, when the Leafs fell into despair and couldn’t claw their way out of a season-killing 2-12 slide, it appeared as though the players had lost confidence in their system.

At one point, an exasperated Joffrey Lupul explained how one powerhouse team (St. Louis) had toyed with them, hemming them in their zone and piling shots on goal despite the fact Toronto had kept its forwards where they were told to be, down low.

“Obviously something was wrong there,” he said.

It’s still wrong – even with new assistant coaches and new management and almost half of a new roster – and it’s been a huge contributor to the Leafs losing 22 of their last 33 games going back to that collapse last season.

The Leafs have made some small strides this season, but Tuesday was a glaring example that it’s hardly enough to change what this team fundamentally is. They’re not good enough to be good (contend) or bad enough to be bad (Connor McDavid), and after each ugly loss, the debate in Toronto circles around who exactly is to blame for the situation.

It’s a complicated question because there’s never one answer when it comes to dysfunction like this.

New president Brendan Shanahan has a lot of options here. But it’s hard to imagine replacing Carlyle isn’t high on the list whenever a major change is finally made.

Even if his players are still fighting the good fight, sticking up for their coach and saying the only things they really can on the subject.

“That’s crazy,” Franson said to the unanswerable question of whether the Leafs had quit on their coach. “That has nothing to do with it. We just didn’t have it the last two games. We like our coaching staff. We think we’re building towards something strong here. And the last couple games we’ve gotten away from it.”

Two games would be one thing, no matter how ugly the results. But 167 say a lot more.

Little of it is good.

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