Randy Carlyle worried he wouldn't get back into the NHL.
The veteran coach had interviewed around the league in the 18 months since things ended badly in Toronto, talking to teams such as San Jose and Calgary, where he was friendly with those in charge. A quick turnaround looked possible.
But when there weren't any offers and he had to sit in the Anaheim press box as a spectator through an entire season, he wondered if he was like Ron Wilson. He wondered if he was done in by failing with the Maple Leafs, on the league's biggest, craziest stage.
One team didn't think so. His old one.
The Anaheim Ducks rehired Carlyle on Tuesday afternoon, bringing him back – nearly five years after he was fired – for an rare repeat performance. What general manager Bob Murray is hoping for is to recreate some of the magic from 2007, when Carlyle and the Ducks won a Stanley Cup together. And he's hoping to forget the lean years that came afterward.
What is often overlooked with Carlyle is that the Ducks struggled in his final few seasons there. They missed the playoffs in 2010 and lost in the first round in 2011. After winning only seven of their first 24 games the following season, Murray finally let his coach go.
"I agonized over that one," he said on Tuesday as he reintroduced Carlyle as coach.
Now, it's championship-or-bust time again.
"Everything came back to Randy in the end," Murray said, emphasizing that he wanted a coach who could hold players accountable. "I know in my heart that this is the right move at this time for this hockey team."
"I feel very fortunate to have this opportunity to come back," Carlyle said.
He is. The team Carlyle returns to finished sixth in the NHL last season. The Ducks also made the playoffs four years in a row under coach Bruce Boudreau, but a first-round loss to the Nashville Predators and a strained relationship with Murray cost him his job.
Carlyle isn't a good replacement, if we're weighing the odds of success. Unlike Wilson – whose caustic personality ended his NHL coaching career at 56 years old – Carlyle's issues in Toronto were tactical, not personal. The crash-and-bang style the Ducks won with nine years ago wasn't high on x's and o's, and with a weaker roster in Toronto, Carlyle was exposed as a poor systems coach.
Increasingly, those types are being culled from the game. As evidenced by the Pittsburgh Penguins winning the Stanley Cup with speed, finesse and an emphasis on puck possession, the NHL has changed dramatically in the nine years since the Ducks last won it all.
In Toronto, it quickly became clear Carlyle hadn't changed with it.
He dressed enforcers regularly, favoured big, slow, stay-at-home defencemen, and alienated skilled players such as Clarke MacArthur and John-Michael Liles, who went on to have success elsewhere. The Leafs were a 45-per-cent possession team over Carlyle's nearly 200 games behind the bench, better than only tanking Buffalo.
That history scared other teams away, including Calgary, which is looking for a departure from former coach Bob Hartley, not a rerun.
That said, Carlyle is taking over one of the best rosters he has worked with in quite some time, and Anaheim was an excellent possession team last season under Boudreau. If Carlyle is willing to adapt and lean on experienced assistant coaches – Trent Yawney and Paul MacLean are expected to stay – there is a chance the Ducks can continue to win.
He will have some veteran advocates on the roster in Ryan Kesler and Kevin Bieksa, who he coached in the American Hockey League in Manitoba many moons ago in the Vancouver Canucks organization. His sometimes testy relationship with Ryan Getzlaf, meanwhile, will again be tested.
The only other holdovers left from Carlyle's last stop in Anaheim are Corey Perry, Cam Fowler and Andrew Cogliano, so in a way this is a fresh start.
But Carlyle also knows many in the front office, including former Leafs GM Dave Nonis (a special assignment scout) and retired Ducks players Scott Niedermayer (special assignment coach) and Todd Marchant (director of player development).
The Ducks are in win-now mode mainly because they've got an older cast of forwards, but there is talented youth on defence and in goal. Hampus Lindholm is emerging as a superstar, and he's complemented by having fellow 25-and-unders Fowler, Sami Vatanen, Simon Despres and Josh Manson on the blueline.
How Carlyle engages with that group, and how willing he is to let them play an aggressive, open style, will be key to his success in this second go-around.
He contended on Tuesday that he has changed for the better, having learned more about the game during his time away from active duty. He also professed an openness to analytics and new ideas, as was the case late in his tenure with the Leafs.
"If you're not prepared to evolve as a coach, you're going to get lost in the shuffle," Carlyle said. "There are things I did 10 years ago I wouldn't do today."
Ultimately, the reason Murray entrusted his team to Carlyle – and not a first-timer like Travis Green, who was the runner-up for the job – was he has done it before. Literally.
The question is if that experience, in what was a very different league, will help or hurt.
The question is also not whether Carlyle is open to new things, but whether he can produce new results. The last seven seasons, his teams have lost more than they've won, have rarely had the puck and have missed the playoffs four times.
If he fails here, with a lineup this promising, it will likely be the last time he gets a chance to.