I know how sick everybody is of hearing that. If I had a nickel for every time Randy Carlyle referenced that word I could buy the Komarov jersey I’ve been eye-balling. It’s a good thing that Shanahan went out and hired two assistants who would shed light on the true systematic problems that plagued the Leafs. Surely these new additions to staff aren’t baffled like Carlyle and can articulate what really ails the team. We won’t need to hear such silly terms as “compete level” or “winning the one on one battles” over and over. They would never use such simpleton terms to describe the Leafs woes.
So why is it that whenever Peter Horacek or Steve Spott have found themselves behind a microphone, you can bet your bottom dollar you’ll hear the term “compete” in some fashion. How is it possible that three bright men continue harp on the same issue? There must be a flawed game-plan to pinpoint or an out of touch head coach to blame. It has to be the “swarm” or how the breakouts are drawn up. No way that not keeping things simple or hustling could be why the Leafs have been inconsistent and frequently outplayed last season and parts of this one. Nonsense…right?
Okay guys, maybe that intro is a bit too much “tongue in cheek”. In all seriousness though, last season it was crystal clear the message being delivered by Leafs coaching to compete was not being received. Changes were bound to come and most expected the axe to fall on Randy Carlyle. When it was in fact his assistants, Greg Cronin and Scott Gordon who suffered the consequences while Carlyle was given a two year extension, a portion of Leafs Nation was left confused. Many Leafs fans felt that Carlyle wasn’t a fit for this squad. The roster just wasn’t capable of playing the style he was asking. “Square peg, round hole” is something we often hear when it comes to the coach and his players. Why on Earth would Shanahan choose to bring back Carlyle and then hire assistants chosen by management?
The answers to these questions may not be as “mind boggling” as one would think.
Much of the storyline going into this season surrounded the new coaches and changes to the Leafs front office. Gone was “old school” thinker Dave Poulin and capologist (I use that term loosely) Claude Loiselle. In came Kyle Dubas, known for his use of analytics and four balanced lines during his time in the Sault Ste. Marie. Shortly after his hiring the Leafs added a “who’s who list” of number crunchers to help in the decision making process. The most impactful changes to the immediate look to the dressing room came when the assistants were chosen.
Peter Horacek, an assistant in Nashville and a former Head Coach in Florida was brought in to lend his wisdom. Horacek is a brut of a man with an even larger presence. Coinciding with the office hires, the well-spoken coach was highly regarded in hockey circles for his modern approach. On the same day they added Horacek, the Leafs promoted Steve Spott, an up and coming young coach who did a wonderful job with the Toronto Marlies the previous season. His ability to communicate with his players and form relationships has been well documented.
Heading into the season the Leafs, in essence, had three head coaches. Spott, whether it was a Freudian slip or not (he is learning the hard way to monitor his comments in Toronto, even while at coaching clinics) eluded to as much recently. His comments and the perception going into the year was that the Leafs would now have three bench bosses. It was apparent though that Carlyle would not be the only voice in the room when important coach’s decisions are being made.
With the home base of this story being Toronto, it was hard to imagine how the Leafs would pull this off, especially when considering Carlyle’s hard-line reputation. Could a three-headed monster be successful with a curmudgeon like Carlyle in charge? With Randy so apparently set in his ways, would they possibly be able to form cohesion?
I’ll steal one of Randy’s words here. Again…..why couldn’t they?
Scott Gordon gave a very honest interview with the Globe and Mail after leaving the Maple Leafs that portrays a much different Carlyle than his villain-like character in much of social media.
Gordon, who like any good pro would, left with kind words for his coach. But his loyalty and respect went further, citing the impact Carlyle had on his thought process going forward. He said that he learned quite a bit from Carlyle, specifically the way he prepared for the games and how he handled himself in the locker room. Gordon, in what was a very in depth interview, went on to say that if there was a change to be made Carlyle was very open to it. Gordon said they made systematic tweaks all the time, but if the results aren’t there or the message isn’t followed, how would anyone ever know. He also included that in his career he’d never been to more meetings revolving around how to fix a team as he was in Toronto. A teacher can only do so much with a student. They can’t write the tests for them.
Systems, while important, are not magic formulas concocted in secret rooms. Foreign and elaborate mysteries, incomprehensible to a throwback like Randy Carlyle. Like most NHL coaches, Carlyle is a thorough workaholic.
Now that’s all well and good, but the story isn’t about how Randy Carlyle hung the moon. Mistakes were made and men like Scott Gordon lost their jobs. What I’m hoping to shed light on is how Carlyle, a coach who couldn’t get his players to perform how he asked, has managed to keep his job and provide decent results early into this season.
Let’s go back to Shanahan’s hiring, his evaluation of the coaches and management, and how he came to employ the three pronged coaching staff behind the bench today. I’m going to leave Nonis out of this. The big calls are Brendan’s now, with Nonis more like Robert Duvall’s character in the Godfather, the “Consigliere”.
First of all, there were philosophical issues that needed to be discussed with Coach Carlyle. For the purposes of enjoyment, let’s envision the conversations Shanahan had throughout the organization prior to deciding to retain Carlyle and hire Spott and Horacek. Call this arrogant, speculative, unrealistic or all of the above, but I have a feeling I’m not far off how their discussions went.
The team had fallen under heavy scrutiny for not employing a fourth line that could play NHL caliber hockey. I would think that Dion Phaneuf’s usage and deployment would have come up as well. The Leafs were a worn out team down the stretch and that has to fall on coaching. It was high time the Leafs looked at their use of enforcers in the line-up. The league is fast paced and demanding now and there wasn’t room for a one trick pony fighter on the team going forward, let alone two. Carlyle has always adapted the “beat ‘em in the alley you’ll beat ‘em on the ice” mentality. He has found importance in the intimidation factor and having a safe environment to play in for guys like Phil Kessel.
Shanahan has played some tough hockey in his own right, and probably didn’t hold Carlyle’s affinity for a goon against him all that much. Brendan has also been on teams that were successful without a policeman, so no doubt this was an interesting conversation. Could Carlyle leave this philosophy behind? Kicking and screaming possibly, but it seems he has. Maybe without choice, but Randy is stubborn, not stupid.
Once that hurdle was leaped, it was time for Shanahan to ask the hard line questions. Fourth line usage, while an issue, was not paramount when assessing the Leafs woes. Shanahan likely wanted to delve into the strategies used by the Maple Leafs under the coach, and how the coach employed said strategies.
Systems, while important, are not magic formulas concocted in secret rooms. Foreign and elaborate mysteries, incomprehensible to a throwback like Randy Carlyle. Like most NHL coaches, Carlyle is a thorough workaholic. Whether the Leafs used the proper fore-check scheme or not may have been the starting point, but it wouldn’t take Shanahan too long to realize that systems played only a small role in the Leafs failures.
We now hear about the Leafs new “backside pressure system”. Also known in the ‘30s as “getting back hard”. It’s true the Leafs are committed more to back pressure, but is that really a structural change as much as it is a player buy in? When it boils down to it, this new terminology is just buzz words for what’s existed since the Montreal Maroons were around. We often search for complex solutions when the answers are in fact very straight forward. The problems in Toronto had more to do with the player’s unwillingness to nightly perform the difficult tasks asked of them as it did their video sessions. So who does that fall on? The class or the professor? Here’s where it gets tricky.
Shanahan absorbed everybody’s two cents over the summer. He weighed the coaching endorsement from the current GM and heard the truth as he saw it from Randy Carlyle. Would the guilty verdict of blame be placed on the message, the messenger or those receiving? I’d say we settle on there being enough blame to spread out.
Much of the criticism we hear is why does Carlyle not cater to his roster and play a style that suits them? And why reference the same issue at every turn? That is an easy one for me.
Compete level isn’t just a problem with this group….it was and remains THE problem. Sure, you could devise a system that worked for the roster, but in the end that brand of hockey won’t get it done. You would be covering up the flaws of players who either refuse or are incapable of playing the way needed when the games get tougher and tighter. If the Leafs are to become contenders they have to follow the new slogan. Play the right way, no matter who is filling out the lineup card. It won’t be because a coach formatted a plan so his group could short cut their way to success. It doesn’t work that way in this league. Accountability is another popular word as of late. How could Shanahan make the players accountable and still put heat on his head coach?
Shanahan in his final synopsis before making his decision on the coach, likely said to himself there is a respected man in place who has the right message but has failed in delivering it. Until the players accept responsibility for their play and start to add the necessary components to succeed, like hard work and sacrifice, coaching becomes arbitrary.
What to do…..what to do? You know this call must have kept Sherriff Shanny up late many nights, weighing his options. These were new decisions, not how many games an elbow to the head is worth.
Of all the decisions Shanahan has made early in his tenure, this one showed me the most leadership. The popular choice in Toronto would have been to fire the coach. The blood thirst would be quenched and Shanahan would have been immediately crowned a man of action. The call to keep the coach took stones, but what he did with the assistants showed his savvy. He liked what Carlyle was selling, but he needed salesman. And he had to give his salesman more than just a company car. He had to create a situation that would allow them genuine input into how the team was to be led, day to day. I hope for the Leafs sake these two new sales gurus aren’t on a bonus or incentive plan, because the Leafs players are buying.
The new President of the Toronto Maple Leafs should be applauded for finding two good, strong coaches. Forward thinkers, much like himself. The Leafs had to hire assistants that would guide and even challenge Carlyle and that was exactly what they did. More than that they had to bring in guys that would support the message. The message to yes….I’ll say it, I’m not afraid….compete hard every night.
Obviously the two men Shanahan chose bring more to the table then just passing on Randy’s notes to the team. From the outside, it sure looks like everybody has a say, and a big one. For example, early in the season Jake Gardiner was struggling. What he was having a hard time with was the accepting what was being preached daily. He was not playing with the intensity of an NHL defender. Fresh off a new contract and Carlyle under the gun, scratching the young blue-liner did not seem like a decision that the coach would make on his own. That would be a bit too much like putting your head in a noose. I figure credit should go to Horacek for playing a big part in how Gardiner was handled. It was a wake-up call to a player who wasn’t doing what was asked. In listening to Horacek being questioned on Gardiner after the benching, if it wasn’t his call he was certainly onboard. I have to also believe that the improved play of Cody Franson, the settled down version of Dion Phaneuf (minute reduction and usage have helped) and the general improvement on the back end can be tracked back to the new D-coach. Horacek comes across as a guy that players enjoy being around. He is said to be a wonderful communicator who can get his point to a player without tearing them down, but through video and more importantly, honest dialogue.
You won’t have to look far to see the impact “Spotter”, as he is affectionately referred, is having on these Leafs. He’s a former coach of both Clarkson and Kadri’s, who have both raised their level of play considerably. Spott has been involved in some of the better decisions made by the group, and Carlyle has had no qualms with saying so. Spott pushed hard for Peter Holland’s increased role. Much was made before the season about some break out suggestions the first year NHL coach had for Phil Kessel, but he’s obviously earning trust with the players and the head coach. After going pointless for far too long on the PP, Nazem Kadri spent a game watching the PP from the bench. Kadri then played likely his best game of the season versus Pittsburgh. To reward his effort, and spark the power play as well as the player, Spott proposed to Carlyle that the Leafs give Kadri a look on the point of the Leafs top unit. A bold suggestion that was not only taken by the staff, it’s proved to be a clever decision.
All assistants in the NHL today are well versed in theory and application as it applies to the game. These men are no different, and by all accounts their knowledge exceeds expectation. Although welcome, I don’t believe contributions to strategy are the number one reason they are seeing success in their roles. The success is coming from three good hockey men being in unison on how this team has to play. We aren’t talking about their neutral zone x’s and o’s. This boils down to effort and expectation. I think in many ways the Buffalo/Nashville games were perfect ammunition for the group to say if you don’t want to listen to us, here is the result. Shanahan should be given further credit for not making a coaching move after that debacle. Another sign that along with the set of coaches, the President supports the message.
That message is simple.