Skip to main content

"He just wanted us to know that we could be better."

That was Tyler Bozak's interpretation of president Brendan Shanahan's message to the Toronto Maple Leafs on Friday, which came the morning before they took the ice in what became a convincing 5-2 waxing of Columbus.

And the reality is that, yes, this team can be better.

Story continues below advertisement

That's the bottom line behind why coach Randy Carlyle was fired on Monday. Many have tried to make it into a story about petulant players, weak leadership and dressing room division, but that's not why the man in the big chair acted.

He simply believed some of the Leafs defensive issues came back to the coach.

Others in the management team agreed.

And Shanahan wanted to see if they were right before he started tearing apart the roster, on the basis of 40 games of rampant inconsistency.

In addition to making a rare speech to players, Shanahan gave another to media on Friday. He didn't say much that will make headlines, but it was nonetheless broadcast live across the city, such is the ceremony when there's a last-minute press conference with this team.

If we read between the lines of what Shanahan said a little, however, there's plenty to parse.

"Being where we are in goals against and shots against, it's not acceptable," Shanahan said at one point, highlighting the Leafs biggest weak point, statistically. "I think it's very important that we have strategies so that our focus is on how to play defence less often. We have to have the puck more.

Story continues below advertisement

"I do think we need more strategies in all three zones."

If that's not an indictment of Carlyle, what is?

You have to be awfully careful with reading too much into six periods of hockey, but the Leafs first two games under interim coach Peter Horachek have been encouraging. They haven't been annihilated on the shot clock the way they often were before – in fact they outshot the Blue Jackets 32-20, allowing the second fewest shots in a game all year – and they've appeared to use the middle of the ice much better on breakouts.

All night against Columbus, the puck was moving from the D up the centre of the ice to the centreman, which is a stark change from Carlyle's system which often had players making Hail Mary passes up the boards to a stationary winger that turned into icing plays.

"That's how we need to approach every game," said Horachek, who emerged for his press conference wearing the camouflage sweater normally reserved for the Leafs player of the game, bestowed on him by Leo Komarov. "Safe is not a good way to play [with a lead]. Smart and hard is a good way to play."

"Our forwards did a great job of playing in our D zone," defenceman Cody Franson said. "There were options for us in the middle all night. They helped us break out of our zone and did a great job on the transition.

Story continues below advertisement

"It leads to carrying pucks into the zone and being able to fore-check," he added.

The fact some young players like Morgan Rielly (22 minutes) and Richard Panik (almost 18) are playing more under Horachek helps, too.

Even if the Leafs aren't winning, they're developing.

The biggest test will be if Toronto can maintain those types of vital signs over the next four games, with a road trip through California and St. Louis that is as tough as they come.

Under Carlyle, it was sure to be a disaster.

Win or lose, what Shanahan wanted was better influence over what was happening behind the bench, and he's now getting it. It's worth noting that when he brought Carlyle back in the off-season, it was on the recommendation of the top hockey minds in the organization when he entered the picture in April, and two of those are no longer in the picture.

Story continues below advertisement

In getting rid of Claude Loiselle and Dave Poulin, what Shanahan created was a curious marriage of old and new school unlike anything in the NHL, putting Carlyle and GM Dave Nonis in the same room with new assistant GM Kyle Dubas, capologist Brandon Pridham and the analytics team.

New to running a team, Shanahan was also new to terms like Corsi and Fenwick, admitting that he had only read about them on the flight to his introductory press conference.

Instead of buying in all the way without that deep knowledge, he wanted to create a healthy debate in the front office among the two sides and watch on as it played out over the first half.

The first casualty was ultimately Carlyle.

By all accounts, Nonis has bought into the new approach, and he provides the institutional experience of running an NHL team that Shanahan currently doesn't have from anyone else. Yes, his mistakes are littered throughout the roster, but he is also a team player, as evidenced by his eventual agreement on the weekend that Carlyle had to go.

Because of Shanahan and Dubas's relative inexperience at the NHL level and Nonis's long tenure under a more traditional style, the Leafs front office is an evolving beast. And while their approach may be taking a little longer than some in the fan base want, it does appear they're hitting on the right decisions.

Story continues below advertisement

The past week has been somewhat of a gong show around this team, and there's a fair argument to be had Carlyle never should have had this chance to drive the Leafs into mediocrity for half a season.

But the key is the right decision was ultimately made.

Which is a good thing, given much harder ones are coming.

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Comments

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • All comments will be reviewed by one or more moderators before being posted to the site. This should only take a few moments.
  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed. Commenters who repeatedly violate community guidelines may be suspended, causing them to temporarily lose their ability to engage with comments.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.
Cannabis pro newsletter