Despite a stunning late-season collapse that cost the Toronto Maple Leafs a playoff spot, general manager Dave Nonis believes Randy Carlyle is still the right man to lead the club.
The Maple Leafs handed their embattled head coach a two-year contract extension on Thursday, while at the same time announcing that assistants Dave Farrish, Greg Cronin and Scott Gordon will not be back.
“It was important for us to make it clear that Randy has the support needed to move forward,” Nonis said on a conference call. “He has done a lot of good things for us and we expect him to continue that with some new assistants.”
There had been rampant speculation that Carlyle would pay with his job after a disastrous end to the most recent campaign saw Toronto tumble out of post-season contention thanks to an embarrassing 2-12-0 finish.
Instead, Nonis and new Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan gassed Carlyle’s staff in hopes that some new voices can help the 58-year-old get the most out of Toronto’s underachieving roster.
“If you’ve seen it being done before with most of the same players, or a lot of the same players, and with that coach leading that group, I know it can happen,” said Nonis. “I know it has happened with this group before. I know that (Carlyle) has reached them before, reached them at times this year.
“For me it’s not that we’re guessing whether or not he can have success or he can get through to them. We’ve seen it. I know that it’s there and we feel he is the guy that can get through to this group.”
Carlyle—who led the Maple Leafs to their first playoff appearance since 2004 in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season—had Toronto sitting second in the Atlantic Division this year before the wheels fell off in mid-March.
“We feel that this group can continue to grow into a higher level of a hockey club,” said Carlyle. “We just have to find and continue to push for a little bit more from the individuals and we are going to do everything we possibly can to change some of the things that are happening with our group.”
Despite calls from fans and media alike in Toronto for Carlyle’s dismissal, Nonis said he wasn’t swayed by how the decision might play in the hockey-mad city.
“If you’re worried about optics in this market, it’s going to be a disaster,” said Nonis. “I think you have to make a decision based on what you think is the best decision for the organization, and this in our minds was clearly the best option.
“He was a guy we believe can get the job done for us. Whether optics are that it’s the wrong thing to do or not doesn’t really matter to us. If you’re looking at trying to please people, you’re probably going to make some poor decisions.”
The Maple Leafs started the 2013-14 season on a 10-4-0 run, but Carlyle worried at the time that his team was getting away with sloppy play in the defensive zone.
Going into and coming out of the Olympic break, the Leafs were rolling despite being badly outshot on most nights. When they beat the Kings in Los Angeles on March 13, they were in second place in the division.
But starting goaltender Jonathan Bernier aggravated a groin injury that night, and though it was not considered serious at the time it proved to be devastating.
James Reimer lost five straight and was pulled March 23 against the New Jersey Devils before Bernier returned and lost three more. The final night of that losing streak, March 29 against the Detroit Red Wings, was effectively the death knell for Toronto’s playoff hopes.
“This hockey club has proven at times to be able to compete to a higher level,” said Carlyle. “The consistency of our compete in our defensive zone coverage was the area of concern right from the opening month of the season. We harped on it, harped on it, harped on it, yet we were winning with it.”
Nonis made it clear that it was management’s decision to clean out the assistant coaches. Carlyle had worked with Farrish since their days with the Anaheim Ducks, winning a Stanley Cup together in 2007.
“It’s a tough day and those are tough ones,” said Carlyle, who also played junior hockey with Farrish. “The game of hockey is a great game, but the business side of hockey is an awful one. This is an awful day in our life, for our relationship between Dave Farrish and myself.”
Nonis said that Carlyle would be consulted on the new assistant coaches, but added the decisions will be a collaborative effort.
Carlyle led Toronto to the playoffs last spring, but that run ended in disaster when the Leafs lost to the Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference quarter-finals after blowing a three-goal, third-period lead in Game 7.
“I think that we showed for periods as a group last year and the year before that what the team is capable of it—that we have the ability to compete with top teams,” said Nonis. “Why we got away from that at times, I think that’s something we’re going to focus on over the course of the summer to put some answers there.”
Carlyle replaced the fired Ron Wilson in March of 2012, months after the Leafs’ previous coach signed a new contract extension. He went 6-9-3 to finish out that season and then 26-17-5 in 2013 season. In parts of three seasons with Toronto, the Sudbury, Ont., native has a combined record of 70-62-16.
Nonis said it’s easy to blame a coaching staff and management when things go south, but added that the players also have to take a lot of the responsibility for a season that went off the rails so dramatically.
“Our players have to be committed to do the things we did the year before that made us successful. The blame has to be spread around all of us,” he said. “I think that we’re going to come back in the fall and the players are going to know that this coaching staff is committed to doing the things that we need done to be successful and they are going to have to perform.”