Randy Carlyle may look like one of the great survivors today because he skipped out from under the axe with a two-year contract extension but the clock is still ticking.
Unless the head coach can get a substantial improvement out of what is sure to be a re-tooled Toronto Maple Leafs roster next season, he will be fired. That two-year extension is not what it appears. On the one hand, it is the message Leafs management wants to send to the players. Carlyle will not be a lame-duck coach in the last year of his contract and vulnerable to slackers who would like to see him fired. His contract is guaranteed for next season and for 2015-16 as well. But that is as far as it goes.
Carlyle had one year left on his existing contract – the 2014-15 season. If Leafs general manager David Nonis had not been able to persuade team president Brendan Shanahan to keep Carlyle, the Leafs would have had to pay Carlyle for the coming season.
Carlyle happens to be an excellent coach and if the Leafs fired him another team likely would have quickly snapped him up, probably the Florida Panthers. In that case, NHL custom would have dictated Carlyle's Leafs salary for next season would be deducted from his salary with the new team as the price of allowing the team to sign a coach who was already under contract. That would have wiped out the financial obligation the Leafs had to Carlyle but Shanahan and Nonis could not count on that when they considered his fate. They had to plan that firing Carlyle right now would cost them next season's salary, say around $2-million (all currency U.S.).
So Shanahan came up with a clever compromise that gave Nonis his way, put pressure on Carlyle to turn things around and still allows the new president to force the hiring of his own coach as early as part way through next season if things do not improve. Or maybe Nonis laid it out as a way of saving Carlyle. Our sources weren't clear on whose idea it was, just that this is the way it went.
The twist was that the announced two-year extension is actually one year guaranteed and one year at the club's option. This gave Carlyle the security he needs to handle next season's version of the Leafs but does not commit the Leafs to anything beyond one year after that.
If the Leafs fired Carlyle this week, they would have owed him one year's pay (presuming there are no specific severance terms in the contract). If things don't go well and the Leafs fire Carlyle one year from now they will still owe him one year's pay. In that respect, nothing changes, just the timing.
This did not happen solely because as Nonis said, Carlyle "is the right coach for our team." Nonis sincerely believes that and good for him for sticking by his man in the face of all that noise calling for Carlyle's head.
But Shanahan needed some convincing and this is where Carlyle had luck on his side. Before he agreed with Nonis, Shanahan took a long look at the coaches who were available. He decided none of them were better than Carlyle.
A year from now, if Carlyle doesn't win enough to please management, Shanahan will look again and maybe the candidates are better. Then the Leafs will write that cheque to Carlyle. But for now, he's their man.
However, Carlyle will need all of his coaching guile to survive. At this point, he has the same core group of players that let him down in March and no idea who will replace the rather large number of players Nonis hopes to ship out. Plus, since management ordered the firing of most of the assistant coaches Carlyle will no longer have Dave Farrish, his best friend and most trusted assistant, to lean on.