When the Maple Leafs fired Randy Carlyle 40 games into the season, their record stood at 21-16-3. They are 6-22-3 since then. On the surface, that is nothing but ugly and it has led to some half-sarcastic comments suggesting Carlyle should win coach of the year. Let’s explore it.
The first thing to note is that, while the team was technically in a playoff position by overall points, they were not by points percentage. Throughout the season, the constant discrepancies in games played between teams mean there is more value in looking at points per game compared to overall points. The Leafs were in eighth when Carlyle was fired, but they were ninth in points per game (Florida was behind them in the standings, but ahead in the percentage).
Then there were the homes games. About a week before Toronto fired their coach, I wrote this piece looking into the team’s hot start and noted a lopsided amount of home games to start the season. The team finished with a 14-8-0 record at home under Carlyle, and have been 5-6-1 since; a huge downgrade. On the road, the team was 7-8-3 under Carlyle compared to 1-16-2 under Horachek. Carlyle coached 55% of his games at home, while Horachek has seen over 61% of his games on the road. Yes, we can’t gloss over the fact that the record has been markedly worse in both directions, but swinging from a large percentage of home games to road games is almost always going to produce an overall downtick in record, which also can’t be forgotten.
What has seemingly compounded matters is that Horachek is a lame duck coach who the team knows isn’t coming back next year (at least not as the guy in charge). When he first took over Horachek managed to push the shots and scoring chances against down, but the team went on a demoralizing 0-4 Western road trip and things spiralled downward from there. There is a distinct difference between having a caretaker behind the bench and having your coach of the future calling the shots. The reality is that no one respects the substitute teacher.
Of course, they also traded away a bunch of their good players. They’ve gotten rid of Cody Franson, who was on their top pairing, and Mike Santorelli and Daniel Winnik, who were top six forwards on the team, while Dion Phaneuf, Joffrey Lupul and Leo Komarov all got hurt.
If you’re keeping track, here is what Horachek has dealt with—a lot more road games, lame duck coach status, implementing new systems in the midst of the hardest road trip in hockey, as well as injuries and trades to key players.
The team wanted to get a look at the players away from Carlyle, which was understandable, but not having a suitable replacement made it so that a lot of these players signed long-term are not playing for next year with this team. It’s a lifeless team playing out the string being overseen by a new management that by and large wants all the key players gone, and everyone knows it.
Last week there were two particularly interesting anonymous quotes –so take them with a grain of salt—on the Leafs published by Pierre LeBrun and then by Steve Simmons.
[quote_box_center]”Before the season began, they undercut a very good GM by firing his support staff,” an executive told LeBrun. “They fired a good — albeit tough — coach in Randy Carlyle before the midway point in the season and declared that his replacement was only a temp. Then they essentially told their players that they are unwanted and proceeded to trade away as many as they could. Is it really a surprise to anyone that their season has descended into chaos?” [/quote_box_center]
To Simmons, a GM simply said, “Does he (Shanahan) know what he’s doing? Because if you look at the Leafs from the outside, it doesn’t look like it.”
Just last week at MLHS we compiled a list of 25 controversies that have already happened in Leafland this season. It has been a crazy season to put it mildly. It is still too early to sharpen the knives just yet; Shanahan has just arrived in Toronto and started to put pieces into place. Short of winning the lottery though, it has been an ominous start, with Harold Ballard-era level of play.
Horachek was thrown to the wolves, while management tried to trade all his key players, to which they have not responded kindly. Heck, the league executive who has protected the team the most works in Calgary and his name is Brian Burke, in case you were wondering the new management group’s level of allegiance to this team. It appears in hindsight that Carlyle kept everyone on the team happy in hopes of trying to coax the best out of them, and now the approach of shaking the boat isn’t working, either. Half of one, six dozen of the other, but either way don’t go nominating Carlyle for the Jack Adams.
- The biggest question for me with the Nazem Kadri saga: Why was he suspended twice? To come out and suspend the player for a game, have him come out and answer questions about it, then have the President come out and suspend him two more games in an impromptu press conference screams dysfunction. Take your pick: Did they suspend him for a game, think about it later, and decided to tack on two more? Did Horachek suspend him on his own and then management found out and decided the transgression needed a more severe punishment? Was there just complete miscommunication between management and the coaching staff? In a smaller market this would have been a really good season for the management group at least trades and acquisition wise, but in Toronto all the other stuff that comes with the management job — the marketing, the player handling — is showing the inexperience that is currently working at MLSE.
- To make matters worse with Kadri, he needs a new contract in the summer. If they sign him to a short term deal it is going to look like they do not want to commit him and he is going to go to free agency at a prime age. If they do lock him up long-term, people are going to wonder why they just gave guaranteed dollars and years to a player they essentially told everyone is immature and needs to grow up. It’s either that or they trade him. No matter what, it is going to be a story and the headache is just beginning.
- Make that four games played for Tim Erixon out of a possible nine since being acquired by the team, playing 15:35 per game. You can go back and forth on the age old debate of the player needing to force his way in, or the team needing to give him an opportunity, but either way there has not been much of a look at the pending RFA to this point.
- William Nylander is now up to 16 points in 22 games on 38 SOG with the Marlies. Here is a nice chart showing how his play has grown since coming over.
- Connor Brown is one point off the rookie scoring lead in the AHL this season. These are the last five winners of the rookie scoring title in the AHL: Curtis McKenzie, Ryan Spooner, Cory Conacher, Luke Adam and Tyler Ennis. Good news, but not exactly banner company.
[pull_quote_center]My final six games with the Panthers, they had a few injuries and I got into the line-up. I figured this was my last hurrah in the NHL, so I went full-out balls to the wall. I decided I didn’t care about fitting in whatever scheme was in place; I just grabbed the damn puck and played my style of hockey.
– Scott Gomez[/pull_quote_center]
Ultimately, the Leafs are trying to tank and dressing an inferior team. If the players want to mail it in so be it, but some of these guys have to understand this will be their last and/or only chance to play in the NHL. Do something with it. The majority of this team is just a bunch of guys taking shifts, waiting for the season to end. As fans most people don’t care at this point unless they’re paying to go –everyone has dreams of McDavid in Toronto—but as a player it’s embarrassing. One guy who seemingly is aware of this? David Booth.
[pull_quote_center]Naz is an important part of our future. We like Nazem Kadri. His teammates like him. We expect a certain level of professionalism. It’s time for him to start making better decisions. There’s a history here. “There comes a point where you’ve got to grow up. Naz is 24. This is not something we felt would benefit him if we swept it under the rug. He understands the decision. He understands how serious we are about him taking the next step. And incidents like this won’t be tolerated.
– Brendan Shanahan, on Nazem Kadri.[/pull_quote_center]
I want to believe Shanahan, but we’ll see what happens.
[pull_quote_center]The guy’s money in the bank, 35 goals every year, on a struggling team. Can you imagine if it was a high-powered offensive team, what Phil Kessel could do? … A player who plays with passion, intelligence, intensity, ferocity — did you see his hit on T.J. Oshie the other night? There’s room for a player like that on any team. But I’m not allowed to express interest in a particular player. They play him too much. He’s fatigued by the end of the game. He’s up against the top centres on every team — Sidney, Tavares, Getzlaf. Those are hard minutes, chasing the stars around. They’re like dog years — seven minutes (per minute). He’s fatigued by the end of the game. Five-on-five, they never do anything against him in the first two periods, then he gets tired. He’s on the first power play, he’s on the first penalty kill — it’s too much.
– Brian Burke, on Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf.[/pull_quote_center]
The team’s play down the stretch makes it easy to cloud better judgement on players, but I bet the majority of GMs in the league feel the same way about Kessel and Phaneuf as Burke does.
5 Things I Think I’d Do
- I think, to be blunt, I would do anything but keep the top line together. At this point it has nothing to do with trying new combinations; it’s because they’ve largely mailed it in when they are not on the power play. Opposition third and fourth liners constantly hem them in their own zone, they aren’t scoring, and about halfway through every game we eventually see them broken up. Why even bother?
- I think I get that the team is trying to give TJ Brennan a real opportunity by playing him on the top power play unit, but it’s foolish. Phaneuf has been an elite PP contributor for years, and here are the options to pair with him: Morgan Rielly, who is 21, locked into his rookie deal and trending upwards as a core piece. Next is Jake Gardiner, who is 25, signed long-term, and has had a down season overall but improved slightly in the second half. TJ Brennan is 26, a career journeyman, and is unsigned past this season. I get that they want to give him a look to see if they should sign him, but at the expense of younger players that you have actually invested in long-term?
- On the note of the power play, I think Dion Phaneuf on the left side of the power play is still ridiculous. Roughly this time last year, Declan wrote a post on Phaneuf demonstrating how much better he is on the right side of the point than the left. Plus, you have two puck moving quarterbacks you could actually put at the top of the umbrella/1-3-1. My guess is they keep Dion up top to stretch penalty killing units north-south, but with his shot on the opposite end of Kessel you’ll stretch the PK east-west and open up down low 2v1s. A rough example would be the Leafs PP under Quinn with Sundin on the half-wall, Kaberle up top, McCabe on the far side, and Wellwood and Tucker down low. The two big shots scored a lot, but so did Tucker on backdoor plays with Wellwood. Right now the Leafs PP is the Kessel show with a one-timer or two from Phaneuf, and otherwise there is no real movement or creativity.
- One player I think I would like to see on the power play is Leo Komarov. With Santorelli and Winnik gone, he’s fifth on the team in even strength scoring. He’s one of their best scorers overall, and he has played a grand total of seven minutes and 15 seconds with the man advantage this season. Winnik was another high scorer, but I’m not sure he had the skill for the power play as his best work was along the walls and creating turnovers. Komarov has flashed some skill, though; he’s led a KHL team in scoring, and can cause havoc in front of the net. He’s signed for three more years and he’s prime aged. Give him a look.
- I think I’d be a little worried about Stuart Percy. He was impressive in his early stint with the Leafs, but since then he has been in and out of the line-up with the Marlies for various reasons. Since being drafted in 2011 he’s played half a season, a full season, another full season, and now half a season again (he has played 40 pro games this year). He’s lost development time and he has to prove he can stay healthy, made worse by his injuries largely being concussions. Last season, Percy had an excellent rookie campaign in the AHL, playing heavy minutes in all situations and chipping in 25 points. The hope was he’d take the next step this year and carry that into the NHL moving forward, but injuries have derailed that. Percy is a good player and it is reasonable to expect him to seriously challenge to make the team next season if not outright make it, but his injury issues and loss of development time is worrisome.