Reforming Randy Carlyle

Reforming Randy Carlyle

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Brendan Shanahan continues to make a lot of sense, at least in the words he speaks to the media.

His one action so far, however — sticking with head coach Randy Carlyle — has been widely panned.

It’s become clear how Shanahan views the situation, though, at least, and it sounds almost reasonable. He has respect for Carlyle, thinks he had an ‘off’ season worthy of some self-reflection, and believes he once was and can again be a good coach. Most of all, he seems to think Carlyle is open to and capable of adapting, something Carlyle must have successfully conveyed to him in the exit interviews in order to retain his job.

Between the upcoming introduction of new assistants and Shanahan’s own say on how this team should play, it sounds as though Randy Carlyle is going to be doing some changing. Worst case, Shanahan knows, if Carlyle stubbornly adheres to a three line approach and broken systems and the results continue as they were, he’ll likely promote one of the new assistants he’ll soon help pick while beginning the search process for the right candidate he felt wasn’t available this Spring. Should the Leafs be hanging around on Carlyle,  waiting to see if he can fix problems he hasn’t expressed a clear understanding of (by his own admission), possibly allowing a season to go to waste before calling a spade a spade? Well, no, which is why the decision remains more than a little off putting.

In an interview with the Globe and Mail hockey reporters yesterday, however, Shanahan nailed what was wrong with this team last season. He even incorporated the phrase ‘compete level’ in a way that made sense.

Let’s face it, I think we have certain strengths here. One of them is speed and an ability to counterattack. But in my own opinion it’s not where it needs to be. It’s not as complete as it needs to be. I think we have to have more mobility on the back end. I think we need to make more simple passes and clean exits. There needs to be more tape-to-tape passes coming out of our zone for the type of forwards we have.

“While the ability to score on the rush is unique and a great asset to have, to be able to counterattack, we need more compete level and time in the offensive zone. That’s not a formula that’s really all that foreign to a lot of teams. It’s a matter of applying it. So I think we’ve got some good pieces but I don’t think we’ve got all of them in the proper place right now. We have some personnel changes to make.

Shanahan also had pretty strong words about the ‘swarm’ defensive system which was railed against in many Leafs blogs throughout the entire season, mentioning the shots against and essentially describing it as a failure, or at least a mismatch for this group, and sounding more interested in a traditional system. It also seems us identifying Joffrey Lupul’s confusion with the defensive system as maybe indicative of how the players were viewing their own-zone instructions was indeed an accurate inference.

“I think there’s some changes [needed]. I think Randy also recognizes there are some changes to the system that need to occur. Specifically in our defensive zone. Whether the Leafs manage to get into the playoffs this year or not, I agree with many of the fans that – and I don’t think I’m saying anything shocking, it’s not a revelation – to be outshot that often, there’s something wrong.

“There are some things about the system that were identified, applications of who was on the bench and like I said the mix, where the message wasn’t getting through. That to me will be an important adjustment that needs to be made.”

Dion Phaneuf

Shanahan also spoke of a need to become more mobile on defence while giving a vote of confidence to captain Dion Phaneuf.

Shanahan pointed out that Captains are often considered bad leaders until they win, and sometimes winning doesn’t come quick or easy. He echoed the need to supplement Phaneuf from the defensive and leadership standpoints. He felt Phaneuf tried to do too much down the stretch, which is unfortunate but a redeemable quality (essentially, he cares a lot).

Regardless of how one feels about Phaneuf the player, he should only be traded if the Leafs are getting good value and improving the talent on the team, not in the name of some ambiguous culture/leadership change aimed at suddenly, magically, inspiring success. Meanwhile, stripping the Captaincy, which Shanahan also ruled out, seems to do more harm than good; provided the feeling is not that Phaneuf was a terrible Captain choice who by wearing the letter C is killing this franchise with terrible examples or advice, it would only seem to surround the Leafs‘ most important defenceman with more pressure, scrutiny and negative energy. In this market, if stripped of his letter just in time to begin a new contract worth $7 million a season, it might be something he would never recover from.

(Also, if Shanahan means what he says about a mobile defence, it should mean Jake Gardiner isn’t going anywhere unless the trade makes too much sense. And one wonders how the Leafs could hand Cody Franson another contract if this is the goal).

It’s all talk for now, and Leafs fans are well within their rights to be sick of “more talk,” but these were some promisingly sensible quotes coming out of a Leafs executive. The coach hasn’t changed, and Carlyle probably is still befuddled about what exactly went wrong last season, as his answers in the press conference would suggest. It really is still preferred that the Leafs would have hired a coach who can find answers for problems and demonstrate a clearer understanding of how to fix them. At a minimum, though, Shanahan’s lip service gives us some measure of hope that, while the head coach may not be new, the approach just may be.

But you’re well advised to wait and see for yourself.

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