Almost two years after he was fired by the Maple Leafs, Randy Carlyle has reached at least one conclusion about what went wrong during his 188-game tenure as Toronto’s head coach.
“You’re here to win the war,” Carlyle said. “You’re not here to win every little battle.”
Now the born-again head coach of the Anaheim Ducks, Carlyle returned to the Air Canada Centre Monday for the first time since he was dismissed by the Leafs. His firing, during a bitterly cold winter stretch in January of 2015 (both on the ice and off it), sent a jolt through the Toronto franchise and was ultimately a turning point for the team.
The Leafs were in a playoff position at the time of Carlyle’s dismissal, but their foundation seemed be a house of cards that was bound to collapse. Toronto was often getting pounded on the shot clock and ranked 28th in puck possession in the 30-team NHL at the time of the firing following 29th and 28th place finishes in the two previous seasons.
The club never delivered the stingy defensive game promised when Carlyle was hired to replace Ron Wilson in March 2014. The combination of a flawed roster and failed coaching strategy ultimately led team president Brendan Shanahan to dramatically overhaul the franchise.
After the 2014-15 season mercifully came to an end, Shanahan fired the remaining members of the coaching staff as well as general manager Dave Nonis and a number of scouts. Shanahan then pledged to follow a patient rebuilding of the organization, one that would see the club bottom out in the 2015-16 season and land the No. 1 overall pick at the 2016 draft.
The overhaul saw Mike Babcock lured on a rich eight-year contract, Phil Kessel traded to Pittsburgh and long-time New Jersey Devils head Lou Lamoriello hired as GM. Captain Dion Phaneuf was later dealt to Ottawa as the Shanahan-led regime purged the guts of a core that reached the playoffs only once.
Tough coach remembered fondly
Only seven regulars remain from Carlyle’s era — Nazem Kadri, James van Riemsdyk, Tyler Bozak, Morgan Rielly, Leo Komarov, Roman Polak and Jake Gardiner — as the Leafs flooded their roster with youth played a different style under Babcock dependent on speed, skill and control. The Leafs rank 11th in puck possession through more than two months this season.
“The way things have developed I would say they are in the direction which was needed to be taken,” Carlyle said.
Even if it was the right move in hindsight, remaining players still defend Carlyle and take some of the blame for his ouster.
“You deserve to fire all the players basically, but it’s not as easy to do so the easiest thing is fire the coach and that’s what they did,” defenceman Polak said. “The coach is always going first.”
“I liked him,” added Komarov. “He was a tough coach, but I didn’t mind him at all.”
“Randy was hard on guys, but we liked him,” Rielly said.
Carlyle quickly moved past his Toronto tenure. His brother in-law had just passed away at that point, pushing matters of hockey to the background. He didn’t coach at all last season, attending Anaheim games occasionally for research purposes, before becoming the surprise choice to replace Bruce Boudreau and become the Ducks’ head coach for a second time.
Carlyle said the NHL has changed, notably trending younger, since he last coached. He suggested that his Leafs experience taught him not to be wound quite so tight, not to fight every little battle a coach might face with such rigid intensity. Sometimes it was about the big picture, he said.
Despite the bitter ending, Carlyle looked back fondly on his time in Toronto.
“If you’re going to dwell on the past you’re in the wrong business,” he said. “My experience here was a positive one. I got to work for a great organization, a storied organization, worked with some great people. I’ve got no qualms about what happened in Toronto. You move on to the next chapter in your life.”