Maple Leafs fans were promised a culture change, however you may define it, when Brendan Shanahan was hired last month. A few weeks later, GM Dave Nonis remains and, with Thursday’s announcement, so does his head coach. It has been clear for weeks that Nonis wanted Carlyle to stay and he was selling Shanahan on it. I’m now left to wonder:

  •  Maybe Nonis is a better salesman than we thought considering all the evidence suggesting Carlyle should have been fired.
  • At this point, Shanahan may be a figurehead more than anything. Unless he completely overrules Nonis to make a move or not, or to trade a guy or keep him, he hasn’t brought in his GM and he hasn’t brought in his coach. Sure, Shanahan will have a say in hiring of the assistant coaches to be, but largely this is the old guard still in charge in the key spots.

I will admit that I thought Carlyle was going to get fired. The first reason was that, with Nonis staying, this was the opportunity for Shanahan to put his first stamp on the organization. Not only did he not take that opportunity, he didn’t take even take part in the announcement.

I thought a coaching change was taking place for three pretty simple reasons.

  1. The first was that not one kid other than the highly touted Morgan Rielly stuck on the team this year. This organization faced a reasonable amount of injury problems this year (roughly middle of the pack in the league in man games lost), and has a very successful AHL team with an average age of 23. On a team that had the worst depth production in the league, they couldn’t find room to make any kid stick full-time? Meanwhile, division rivals Detroit and Tampa rode their kids into the playoffs. It would have been easier to stomach if they played the kids quite a bit and lost those games, but to watch them get limited or no opportunities at all and then proceed to tear up the AHL as per usual was a tough pill to swallow. That seemed like a big black eye to me.
  2. The second reason was that this was Carlyle’s team. The Leafs made major moves to bring in the type of players that Carlyle wanted and it backfired in a big way. There’s no need to go over the moves because we all know what they were, and most of them were bad. Had the Leafs brought back the same players that weren’t Carlyle guys and proceeded to miss the playoffs, I think we can all reasonably envision a scenario where “we need to give him his type of team” would have unfolded, but they already did to the best of their ability and it didn’t work. Now, the company line is that it is on the players and they need to change the culture in the room, a year after they already made major moves to do that and make their coach happy.
  3. The third reason is pretty simple: I think they underachieved. This should have been a playoff team in my mind and they crumbled down the stretch in part due to all their top players running out of gas from shouldering so much of the load throughout the season. I never would have predicted this team to make the playoffs in the West, but the East is weak, they are a cap team, and there are more than enough pieces here to at least finish top 8, in my mind.

But what’s done is done; Carlyle is staying and it has left me with three thoughts:

No win situation?

I suppose the Leafs could pull off a dramatic turnaround and become a top team and go far in the playoffs next season, but if they achieve a moderate amount of success (make the playoffs, lose in round one) my guess is a lot of people will say they either 1) Got lucky again, or 2) The assistant coaches changed things here and are the heroes. It is hard to envision a scenario where the Leafs don’t bring in an assistant that’s been a head coach before and can take over at some point if need be (Muller, Oates, etc.); as soon as the Leafs string together a few losses or a bad stretch – which is bound to happen because almost every team goes through it at some point in an 82 game season — the fans will already have their knives sharpened and will be eager to call for his head at the first sign of trouble. And so, if they win, it will be because the assistant coaches changed things (my guess as to the public perception, to be clear), and if they lose things will get nasty quickly in Leafs land.

Toronto is a really tough place for any coach to ply his trade, but in this scenario it is going to be ruthless.

“He could be gone by American Thanksgiving, don’t worry”

To be clear, I expect the Leafs to get off to a good start in October because this group seems to have a penchant for doing that and I imagine it will continue. The question is, will they tail off and crumble later in the year like they have in each of the last two 82-game seasons?

If they do, and then fire Carlyle in the middle of the season, they will be hiring from a position of weakness when there are less candidates available (because some available head coaches right now will get hired over the coming months) as opposed to hiring this summer when they can conduct a full-on search. That is how they got Carlyle in the first place.

They could always promote an AC and then perform a search in the summer of 2015, but what a wasted season the next one would be.

Elliotte Friedman speculated that Shanahan’s long-term guy isn’t available right now. Therefore, why would he fire Carlyle, hire a new guy, fire the new guy next year, and then have Shanahan hire his desired long-term guy? That is a fool’s game. How many times have we heard fans say “wait for next summer when ____ is available?” Ryan Getzlaf, Brad Richards, Sedin twins et al say “Hi.”

There’s a lot of speculation involved here, but this is what we’re left to wonder about currently.

Can you teach old dogs new tricks?

By no means is Carlyle under any obligations to share with the public and media his plans to change his systems and approach. That is understood, but he sure didn’t sound like a guy about to make significant changes to what he was doing. There was the comment that the players ran out of gas, but no mention of him playing the tar out of them and running them into the ground; instead, there was confusion as to why. Really, throughout the entire press conference, Carlyle continuously said he was “mind-boggled.” It didn’t sound very inspiring.

During the Olympic break, Carlyle spent the majority of it trying to think of ways to fix the defensive issues only for the team to return to play and proceed to totally collapse.

So, with that all in mind, it is tough to have faith in Carlyle coming up with the answers this time around and righting the ship (and if you’re thinking/hoping the assistant coaches will, remember my first thought where people will praise the ACs for a reasonable turnaround).

It is unknown how much say Dave Farrish had on the defensive line-up decisions (i.e.: Was it his call to healthy scratch Gardiner and Carlyle merely allowed it?), but as the defensive coach one has to think that he really managed the minutes, the pairings, and the deployment. Head coaches traditionally don’t get too involved in the defense very much, so it will be interesting to see how the new assistant coach manages the pairings. Gardiner-Phaneuf was never a regular thing and Phaneuf was played almost exclusively as a shutdown guy. Will that continue? It appeared Scott Gordon ran the power play, so we would have to think it was his call to play Phaneuf on the left side rather than the right where he is most successful. Will that continue? These are just a few questions of many as to what might actually change through a turn over of the assistant coaches.

I question if the system will be changed much and the head coach usually has ample say on the forwards throughout the game, but the defense is one area I think we could see a noted improvement. Of course, it will be all for not if every time the D look up to make a breakout pass the forwards have already blown the zone and are standing at the opposing blue line.

But, really, the coach will be the least of everyone’s worries if the GM guts the youth.

Interesting ending note: In Thursday’s press conference, Carlyle said assistant coaches usually handle special teams and noted that, when he was in Washington, he handled the penalty kill. How did their penalty kill do while he was there? 28th and 26th, respectively.