Late this past summer, through a chance encounter, I had an opportunity to sit down with Toronto Maple Leafs Coach Randy Carlyle. I told the coach of my work on social media, my account as Leafs Lawyer (who defended the Leafs at all costs and acquired me an impressive list of “blocks”, a real who’s who of…I’ll let you fill in the blanks) and my work as a writer at thehockeychat.com.
Our time was brief. I spent about a half hour with the Coach and admittedly squandered much of it with off the record discussion. Mainly focused on the role social media has taken, in which we discussed some of the writers I respected. I specifically mentioned the two Mike’s, (Michael Traikos of the National Post/Hockey News and Mike Zeisberger) to which Carlyle responded:
“Those two guys, writers like that I respect because they have a job to do and a responsibility to the reader. There’s no malice there, even when it’s negative about us.”
Our mutual admiration seemed to develop a comfort level for us and after I asked the Coach for permission to quote him, the interview was loose and easy.
Since then I’ve become part of the team at the Hub here and THC was gracious enough to allow us to use the quotes from the interview. I would like to add my time at THC was amazing and I know they will continue to grow. But my heart is with the Leafs, its blue as you may know from my last post, so here we are today at leafshub.com. I wanted the readers here to see the Carlyle I did and share his thoughts with you.
Jude: “I’m a Phaneuf supporter and I’ve taken a beating at times for it. What are your expectations for the coming season?”
Randy: “Our plan is for Dion to play 22-25 minutes. When Dion goes over 25 minutes it can be taxing on him. Over 82 games it wears. I think we were guilty of putting Dion in some tough situations, but in fairness, who were we to give those tasks to? We are trying to ease people into the league and unfortunately the burden quite often fell on Dion. The minutes he logs are difficult ones. With our additions, we hope to take some assignments off of his plate. Our hope is that people realize we are a group that is still growing into itself. What we expect from Dion is no different than everyone else, to continue to grow with the group.”
J: “He takes a lot of heat for his leadership. How would you describe the Captain off the ice?”
R: “Dion is a regular guy. That’s about all there is to it. We have a bunch now that have been together for a while and Dion is a big part of that. He’s just one of the boys.”
J: “Obviously there’s been a lot made of analytics and the team’s sub-par performance in those areas. What are your thoughts on the matter?”
R: “Well, I go back to a quote of mine when we were 10 and 4. I said we were a bad possession team. We needed to improve in that area. This wasn’t something that snuck up on us or caught us off guard. We tried all year to make adjustments. We didn’t put our feet up and hope it corrected itself. We got to work. But there are times the answers aren’t there. We have a young group. Compete level is something we bring up and hear about with regards to our team, but again, it goes back to us growing into who we intend on being in the future. It’s a process and there are no short cuts. We are a team finding our way in this league and as we figure things out, it’s the belief that our numbers will improve. We keep our own stats. We track a multitude of things, whatever we think can help. Looking at our personnel moves, every team goes through change in the off season. But we think the people we brought in will be good for us in this department.”
J: “As a guy who likes to ponder the lineup for opening night, I’m wondering where Petri Kontiola slots in for you. Have you had the opportunity to see much of him?”
R: “In all truth, no I haven’t. Anything I’ve seen is on tape. But our pro scouts really feel like he has a chance to be on our team. So we are going to see.”
(Note: Reading into his body language, the coach didn’t seem convinced. We now know how that has played out thus far)
J: “In regards to the whole “just okay” incident? I thought it was a fairly innocent comment. What are your feelings on how things transpired?”
R: “That’s just it. On that particular night I felt James was just okay. There was no intent to call James out. As an organization, we try to be considerate of the things we say in terms of our players. At the same time, we do the players a disservice by not being forthright with them. It’s tough to make judgement without walking a mile in the coach’s shoes. It often becomes a situation where you can’t win. Questions are being asked and sometimes comments take on a life of their own. But it’s Toronto. Again we are a team with young players and a lot of the problems we have now with how things fall out can be erased through winning. Winning changes everything and that’s our ultimate goal.”
I felt as though I’d imposed enough for the day and our time had naturally elapsed. Now it was on to another duty that comes with being the coach at the center of the hockey universe, as he allowed for his picture to be taken with a couple appreciative fans.
Randy engaged in a light hearted exchange about fishing in the area with one fan and the two shared some of their hot spots. The proud Leaf fan told Carlyle he was sitting on 19 big beautiful Rainbow Trout for the year. We joked that he was on the cusp of a 20 goal season. The fisherman/sailor then asked Carlyle if he was happy to have Leo Komarov back crashing and banging.
Nothing that he said can do justice to the expression and smile on his face. That told me everything I needed to know about Carlyle’s feelings towards the returnee from a strike shortened 2013 squad that won the hearts of the city. It was easily the happiest I’d seen Carlyle all discussion. I commented that maybe Leo could climb higher in the line-up this year, then quickly I realized how many suggestions Carlyle must receive in the run of a year, from men far more welcome to offer strategy to the coach than I.
Obviously it was a great experience, but I’ve spoken with hockey people in the past. For me it wasn’t much different than having a discussion with someone at the local rink. The opinion I left with wasn’t framed by being star struck. To be perfectly honest, I went in open-minded. I was going to rely heavily on our time together when shaping my decision on whether I thought Toronto still had the right man behind the bench.
The man I spoke to was not an old curmudgeon set in his ways. The Carlyle I met looked active, fit and revitalized. It was September, so he should look and feel his best. Nonetheless, he was sharp, well-spoken and confident. There was no broken man before me anguishing in the heartbreaking collapses of previous seasons. The guy sitting with me was a rational thinker who was open and intuitive when he spoke of the plan for his hockey club. The path and direction seemed clear and unwavering.
My guess is that when Brendan Shanahan, the President of the Toronto Maple Leafs, sat down to discuss what went wrong last season, the boss saw and heard the same Carlyle I was privy to the small sampling of. His call to extend the coach only echoes my thoughts as I walked away from our sit down.
Leaf Nation has become divisive and at times counter-productive. We’ve been driven to it, that’s not an indictment. But last year a simple comment on a goaltending performance became a chapter from “Lord of the Flies” (yes, the chapter where they start eating each other). Blame for last season lies at everyone’s feet. The coaches, the players, the media and the fans included. The disappointment we’ve shared together should galvanise us all, as it should the Leafs roster. How’s the line in the song go? ”You have to lose to know how to win.” Everybody needs to get on the same page. What better time than now, at the early part of a fresh season? The negativity is taking hold again, and it can’t be helpful to the team, albeit they’ve made their own beds.
A coach is in place that is trying to do what’s right for the organization and its players. You don’t have to like the man. Scotty Bowman was no charmer. Communication is the big thing nowadays, and I get that. But I’ve heard stories that Bowman would ride 12 floors in an elevator with a player and not speak a word. Some he never spoke to at all. He’s considered the greatest coach in history.
Randy Carlyle is a proven winner. He may not have the charisma of a Dallas Eakins or a Paul Maurice, but what does that matter? The life-long participant in the game knows what it’s going to take for this team to raise hockey’s Holy Grail together. He’s been there and seen it first-hand.
If the Leafs don’t find consistency then obviously the coach will be promptly re-evaluated. In the meantime we all need to pop the top off a soda and relax a bit. Let these guys see if they can grow into the team everyone has longed for. The hard part is over, the team is almost all grown up. Do you remember your teen years? How was your relationship with your father? Hasn’t it improved now that you’ve matured? The same will hold true with the youthful players Carlyle has been hardest on. There is a method to his ways. He’s trying to build good pros the way sees fit. Agreeing with the approach or not is up to you. I more than understand why many feel he’s not the man for the job. His approach and ideals are not for everyone.
Hey, I’m pulling for Randy Carlyle, I won’t deny that. But more importantly I’m pulling for the Toronto Maple Leafs. If that means a change behind the bench then so be it. For my money though, the problem is not the coach or systems or buzz-words. It’s winning one on one battle’s all over the ice and taking care of the puck. Until the team embraces that, the coaching carousel will go around and around and around.
Ron Wilson may never coach again and if Carlyle is fired his fate will likely be the same. Despite what may be written, these are good hockey men that have been left hanging in the breeze by many of the same Leafs. So let’s put some onus on the players here and get this ship headed in the right direction.
I don’t care if Carleton the Bear is behind the bench….I just want us to win. It’s a process (insert 1967 joke here) but we need to take the next step here and then maybe we won’t see another person lose their job just yet.
Can the Leafs be successful with Carlyle behind the bench or is it time to part ways?
I think we’ll know our answer sooner rather than later.
Photo source: NHL.com via Getty Images