Can Randy Carlyle become a smarter coach?

Something I’ve been pondering for a while, or at least for the few minutes it took me to get ready for work this morning, is whether Randy Carlyle can return to the Leafs in the fall as a better coach than he was this past season. 

The whole Carlyle debate has been dug up a little more again with the recent departure of Marlies’ coach Dallas Eakins to the Edmonton Oilers.

I know there’s a group of fans and analysts out there that think if the Leafs get results, then Carlyle must be doing everything right. In this past season, results meant the team getting in to the playoffs for the first time in a decade. I don’t want to get too far in to that argument again, so I’ll just leave it there. But I just wanted to point out that I know these people exist.

Maybe in the past I was strictly a results-driven person as well. Perhaps in some aspects of my professional or personal life, I still am. But for the most part I think about things in terms of the process, and continuous improvement. I’d like to think sports teams apply the same type of thinking to all areas of their organization as well. I mean, of course they do, right?

If you think of the Leafs’ season as a project, then surely at season’s end they should carry out some sort of "lessons learned" analysis and re-jig for next year with a slightly different approach to certain areas. Whether that area is coaching, their handling of prospects, scouting, whatever, they should always be looking for ways to improve.

Like many, I think the influence of coaching is a bit overblown. However, if you can’t ice the best lineup possible due to an old-school way of thinking, there’s definitely cause for some concern.

I guess what I’m interested to see is whether or not Carlyle can identify mistakes he made this past season and learn from them. Other coaches have done so in the past, and the first thing that comes to my mind is this piece on Ken Hitchcock. 

If Carlyle can’t smarten up, then I guess it’s up to Nonis to go through this process with him. If Nonis doesn’t see any problems or mistakes with the way the Leafs roster was handled under Carlyle, then that’s a bigger problem. I have a feeling Nonis may be on the same page with Carlyle in terms of icing a lineup with a wasted fourth line and "tough" blueline, and that scares me.

A handful of games is not really what you want to draw any conclusions from, but when the Leafs were forced in to a lineup that included Jake Gardiner and didn’t include two lead-footed fighters during the playoffs, I’d consider that somewhat of a lesson learned. If Carlyle doesn’t see it the same way, then I doubt he’ll change his ways next season. There’s an old saying, which I believe goes back to biblical times, and it says "a shit leopard can’t change his spots."

For Hitchcock, it likely wasn’t until he was unemployed that he really started to look at ways to improve his coaching style. I’m sure that’s the same for a number of coaches when they get the hook. 

Carlyle shouldn’t have to get fired to see that some of his moves are mind-boggling. What I’d like to see next season is some noticeable improvements in the way Carlyle assembles his lineup, along with some more flow to the Leafs’ game. I know the team is fast, but a lot of times they look like a team that’s being overcoached and their moving the puck is hesitant and a bit sloppy. I suppose all teams show this sometimes, but if you look like a team like the Blues or Senators, they seem to be a bit more "in tune" with each other on the ice. I think the Leafs could improve in that area.

Of course, as mentioned above, a lot of this still falls on Nonis. With Colton Orr and Frazer McLaren free agents (McLaren is restricted), if Nonis decides to bring them back or replace them with two more players that have trouble getting up and down the ice, we’ll know that this isn’t just a Carlyle issue. It’s a Leafs issue.

After a real offseason not overshadowed by a pending lockout, and full 82 game season, I’m sure we’ll get a better idea of each of Nonis and Carlyle’s philosophies. If the percentages start to swing back against the Leafs in terms of shooting and goaltending, that may be a painful process to watch. Let’s hope that between Carlyle and Nonis, they can figure out a way to push the puck in the right direction a little more next season.

  • MaxPower417

    I really hope they aren’t down on Jake Gardiner. He only played after much kicking and screaming by Coach. Unless we get back one humdinger of a player I don’t want him traded. I also don’t want Reilly going back to Moosejaw. He can’t learn a thing down there next year unless he’s traded to a contender, he’s already mastered that league, and no AHL option, they should carry him for this next year and see what they got. If he plays back in junior he won’t learn much he doesn’t already know, keep him with the Leafs, and loan him out to Hockey Canada for World Junior Champs. Because of his knee, he had to go back last year, not this year. If they do something like trade Jake,maybe in a package for Edmonton’s 7th or higher if he can be creative. Tb is up against the cap, what if we swapped picks and traded for Vinnie for their 3rd, and pick up Barkov ( I Know, I wouldn’t do it if I were TB) They will have to do something about their cap though, maybe we can get Aulie back. I don’t agree he got a long enough look here. I am more realistically suggesting that Holtzer will be traded to Edmonton to be their 6-7-8 D-man. There is room for him there and he played a lot for Dallas, I don’t think the Leafs plan to use him at the ACC.

    • Back in Black

      Keeping Reilly on the big cub – REALLY bad idea. You may not be old enough to remember Benning and Bomistruck but the Leafs ruined them by keeping them in the bigs at 18. All the really successful clubs are touted for “being able to develop propects right”. The Leafs need to learn to do that – they did it right with Kadri and Gardiner (despite a storm of idiotic criticism) and hopefully they do it with Reilly who may have the best potential of the 3.

  • MaxPower417

    I’m surprised people miss the politics in hockey. There is no way that Nonis can fire Carlyle after he was coach of a the first leaf team to make the playoffs in nearly a decade. And after he had a strong showing in the playoffs. If you bring in a new coach that ices the line up you want and they struggle the team struggles then who gets the blame Nonis for recommending an ineffective coach or the coach themselves? This is career suicide for Nonis. Replacing Carlyle is like people who want to trade Kessel – it doesn’t pass the logic test.

    And even if someone believed in advanced stats and regression, why not make the argument that we should trade Kadri and Lupul the two luckiest PDO leaf players and while we are at lets get rid of some of our terrible corsi players mclemment and phaneuf. Getting ride of the “worse” players will surely improve the team. And we seem to forget that Carlyle is the coach that put these players in tough situations (Phaneuf, Grabbo, Mclemment as a shutdown roles) and sheltered Kadri and Lupul who benefitted by scoring goals.

    The other part that is not completely though out is that players like Fraser, Holzer, Orr who also benefit from PDO and have low Corsi play so little that changing them will have minimal impact on Fenwick or PDO assuming they are replaced with NHL/AHL tweener talent. The 2011 version of the leafs coached by Wilson they had worse PDO and poor Fenwick and minimal face punching.

    Sure I can offer my opinion on the merits of grit vs skilled guys, but the question we need to answer is what drives Fenwick? Would another puck moving dman or elite center improve the transition. Would a shutdown defender to free up Phaneuf be the better solution? These are the question that need to be discussed and understood before we broach the idea of firing Carlyle because he ices facepunchers who play 5 minutes and that is the BIG reason the leafs suck.

    • Back in Black

      Lol, you make advanced stats sound like bigfoot or the Loch Ness monster.

      They don’t suggest doing what you think.

      They tell me Kadri is good, but benefited from easy minutes. So he isn’t as good (yet?) as his point totals would indicate, they don’t say he can’t eventually become better. (He did in fact struggle down the stretch against tougher QOC, which isn’t a criticism, just a fact and perfectly normal) They tell me Lupul is a good offensive player who has benefited from playing with a super talented Kessel or a talented Kadri in easy minutes. He’s also a keeper, who should continue to be utilized in the role he has been used the last two years.

      As for Phaneuf, McClement and Grabovski, um yeah they had rough years in terms of Corsi, but advanced stats also tell me a huge reason for this was their incredibly difficult usage. Super tough minutes, super low offensive zone starts make it tough for anyone to have positive Corsi numbers.

      They also tell Carlyle needs to maybe lessen the load on Phaneuf and make sure he’s partnered with Gunnarsson from the start. No more Holzer or Kostka as top pairing defender’s. And Grabovski while good in the shutdown role, thrives in slightly easier minutes (still tough, but not so tough). Grabovski should be on the 1st or 2nd line with some talent.

      The Leafs do need to add another defender who can play tough minutes. We missed out big on Bouwmeester who was had for cheap and is really good. If Bouwmeester is top pairing and Phaneuf is 2nd pairing, Phaneuf would absolutely thrive.

      I also love some grit in my lineup, but it should be able to at least play well compared to other teams 4th lines. If we can add Clarkson to a reasonable contract and term great, he can actually play AND would lessen the need for Carlyle to employ “policemen”. If Clarkson inclusion into the lineup means less of either Orr or McClaren, team is better for it. I don’t like Carlyle, but I agree in reality he isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, so let’s make the best of it. I get everyone’s wary of him as some team will likely overpay for a long term deal, that said I like him as a player.

      • Back in Black

        Now you are talking about “usage” and not specifically advanced stats. And who determines usage (who the player plays against and in what zone) – the coach. Gunnarsson was also fighting injury and so Phaneuf was paired with HOlzer and Kostka. And it is not unrealistic to do this in the NHL. Markov was paired with Komisarek back in the day, Suter was paired with a rookie named Brodin this year. But Holzer had too many holes in his game compared to Komisarek and Phaneuf couldn’t compensate enough like Suter or Markov did.

        Saying Carlyle should lighten the load on Phaneuf is a sure fire way for the leafs to lose. Yes in an ideal world Carlyle would have BOuwmeester as a partner but that is not realistic. So should Carlyle be fired because he doesn’t have the option to ice Bouwmeester or Clarkson but needs to ice Kostka to shutdown and add Orr to get some grit?

        All that Carlyle could do is give the hardest minutes to players like Phaneuf and Grabbo and Mcclement. And that is part of the reason the leafs won this season (as well as some sheltered USAGE driven puck luck from Kadri, Lupul, etc) which again is the coach making the choice.

        • Back in Black

          Usage is part of advanced stats, QOC, offensive zone starts etc.

          There were times when Carlyle was giving Grabovski 12-14 minutes a game. Clearly someone else was occasionally getting tough minutes, no? He could have tried a line of McClement centering Kulemin and Komarov, he could have tried Bozak in a defensive role and Grabovski on the top line. He gave Kostka and Holzer WAY too long a look on the top pairing.

          I get it though, in your mind what ever Carlyle does is either right or he had no other choice. That simply isn’t true. Liles sat more than he should have. Lightening the load isn’t me suggesting Phaneuf play “easy” minutes, it means him not playing such brutally tough minutes when you see him struggling. Giving him and Grabovksi slightly easier minutes also affords them the opportunity to score more, which, you know, they are pretty good at. The amount of offense they can add, can offset whatever you are losing by having to then give your next best guys a “slight” increase in tougher minutes.

          I am not one to say everything Carlyle did was wrong, but he certainly isn’t infallible.

          • Back in Black

            Phaneuf simply isn’t the leader nor the cap hit the Leafs should accept at his current price. I recall a not-so distant Sports Illustrated players survey in which he was listed as the most over-rated player in the NHL.

            He’s no better than a role player… Not a captain and not someone to command his current salary. Sorry… he needs to move on.

            Other D (inc. Gardiner) should receive more ice time and the freed up cap space can be used to improve the talent up-front.

  • Back in Black

    The five minutes played by the goons matter more than you think. These are the most sheltered minutes of the game – the minutes that other teams give to talented players to try and dominate the opposition for scoring chances. What would Grabovski’s Corsi look like if you gave him two extra easy minutes per game?

    Other teams like Montreal and Boston put out fourth lines that can handle regular or even difficult minutes, and exploit the easy ones with skilled players. Toronto gave the easiest minutes to “players” with no skill.

    I agree, it would be a big personal risk for Nonis to fire Carlyle. His option, though, is to risk wasting a season demonstrating a problem we can already see. The problems with Carlyle go further than the goons; it’s also the waste of talented players like Gardiner, Grabovski and MacArthur.

  • Back in Black

    Lots of interesting stuff written here as comments. Agree with some, disagree with some. That’s the way opinions are. I am a big fan of Grabbo and would love to have seen him get the “easy” minutes as mentioned here, but I think the Leafs would have suffered worse………… One thing that comes to mind is, who could have done it better than Grabbo. I think that the Boston/Leafs would have been a one-sided Bruins affair if not for Grabbo playing the spoiler. Although he did not get the points, he sure as hell stopped a lot of them from the Bruins. Grabbo was the best choice that Carlyle had to do the job that had to be done. There has been a lot of down publicity on Grabbo, but he did exactly what he was asked to do, and he did it well. Ask yourself, “Who could have done it better?”

    Phaneuf played as well as someone could, given the too many minutes that he played each game. I have never been a fan of Phaneuf but I don’t see all the blame resting on him either. He was tired, played too much.

    Don’t blame the new guys. They played with heart, made mistakes, but persevered. The team is young and learning, and would have gotten past the Bruins, except the refs were fans of the Bruins spilling Leafs blood all over the ice. I blame the loss more on the refs than anything the Leafs players did or did not do. When you throw the rule book away with a bunch of lions in the ring with a bunch of sheep (comparitively speaking), then you know it will be a one sided fight. Had the refs officiated by the rule book, I think it would have been a much different outcome. The were missed/bad calls both ways but the majority were in favor of the Bruins. All-in-all, it has to be the worst year of officiating I have ever seen, all year, all over the place. And Shenahan, I don’t even want to go there…………….

  • Back in Black

    That Phaneuf may be considered the best best D on the team is part of the problem. I agree with a previous comment in that too much was asked of him.

    The SI survey I noted wasn’t an editorial from a writer… It was a reflection of how other NHL players viewed his value. It provides a professional perspective beyond the blind faith Leaf fans are so well known for.

    Is Phaneuf talented? Sure. Worth the $6.5 million he was paid last year? Worth the $5.5 million due next year? Worth holding onto when he’s to be an unrestricted free agent after next season? All are questions that need to be considered.

    Routing for and supporting one’s team is admirable. I’m also a fan of the Leafs. I was speaking objectively, considering the complete roster, prospects, needs, and salary cap restraints.

    The Leafs have depth on defense and developing talents that need ice time to flourish. Starting four quality forward lines will be the biggest challenge moving forward. Changes imposed by free agency and salary demands of important players add to the dilemma.

    I’m looking forward to seeing what happens to the roster this off-season. I’m somewhat optimistic that current management will make the tough decisions that lead to improved results.

    Go Leafs!