TORONTO – Randy Carlyle couldn’t shed any light on the Toronto Maple Leafs’ most pressing off-season question—his future with the NHL club.
Moments into his season-ending news conference Tuesday, Carlyle was asked if he’s returning as Toronto’s head coach. It’s a question he couldn’t definitively answer.
“I’m here today,” Carlyle said. “In this business you take on the responsibility of wins and losses and all you do is put your best foot forward, you be honest and forthright with people and that’s what we tried to do as a coaching staff.
“Decisions will be made whether this person or that person will not be back and I’m not the one making those decisions.”
Ultimately, that decision lies with Brendan Shanahan, the Hall of Famer who took over as Toronto’s president Monday. Carlyle said he’s spoken in passing with Shanahan but the two haven’t sat down to discuss his future.
Carlyle’s absence from Shanahan’s introductory news conference Monday raised eyebrows but the Leafs coach had a reason for not being there.
“I was working and had the responsibility of one-on-one meetings with our players as we do at the end of every season,” Carlyle said. “And that took most of the day.”
Carlyle will have to answer for the freefall that ultimately cost Toronto a playoff spot. The Leafs entered the Olympic break on a solid 11-2-1 run and tied with Montreal for third place in the Atlantic Division with 70 points.
But Toronto (38-36-8, 84 points) couldn’t continue that impressive roll following the break, posting a 6-14-2 record. The Leafs’ struggles were magnified down the stretch as they won just three of their final 16 regular-season games to finish 12th in the Eastern Conference and 23rd overall.
What’s more, Toronto scored just four goals over its final four games, all losses. Two of those defeats were shutouts to Florida and Ottawa.
All of which has left Carlyle searching for answers for the club’s diehard fans.
“For now, we don’t have the ultimate answer to give you,” he said. “We’re embarrassed by what just went down.”
Toronto’s playoff hopes appeared solid in March following road wins over Anaheim and Los Angeles—a 6-2 loss to San Jose sandwiched between them. However, ensuing defeats in Washington and Detroit not only erased that momentum but began a stretch of eight straight defeats in regulation.
“When we played in Washington and Detroit, we seemed to lose our mojo as a team,” Carlyle said. “Something changed … that kind of turned the tide of our season.
“I don’t know if you can say it (coach’s message to players) wasn’t getting through or getting ignored. It was like we were behind the bench in situations and you saw the first goal would go in and the shoulders would shrug. Shifts after goals are most important, those are the events within the game and our response was very minimal.”
That was in stark contrast to the lockout-shortened 2012-’13 campaign when a rugged, physical Toronto squad posted a 26-17-5 record to make the NHL playoffs for the first time since 2004.
After falling behind 3-1 in their opening-round series against Boston, the Leafs rallied to force a seventh game and led 4-1 in the third, only to have the Bruins mount an epic comeback for a heart-breaking 5-4 overtime victory.
“We were a hard team to play against,” Carlyle said. “A lot of people talk about the series against Boston but we remember we were down 3-1 to a Stanley Cup finalist and came back and make it a seven-game series.
“Sure, we weren’t happy with what happened in Game 7 in the third period but it took a lot for that group to reach back and be competitive against a strong hockey club. We really didn’t create an identity for our hockey club this year … that’s what was disturbing because we had been a competitive group in the year previous where we felt obviously this group going forward was ready to take the next step.”
However, Carlyle said the Leafs’ inability, or unwillingness, to consistently play sound defensive hockey came back to bite the club.
“We’re not asking players to do something they haven’t done before or wouldn’t have done in another situation, be it junior hockey or the American Hockey League,” he said. “You have to compete on the defensive side of the puck with will and commitment and we did not want to do that on a day-to-day basis and that’s what our struggles were.
“We wanted to create more offensive zone time thus allowing our offensive players to play with the puck 200 feet away from your net. When we did that effectively we were an effective hockey club but we just didn’t do it consistently.”
A persistent complaint this season has been a perceived lack of leadership throughout Toronto’s roster. Carlyle said that issue will be one of many examined this off-season by the club.
And the Toronto coach has plenty of questions to ask of himself.
“If you think you have all the answers you’re in the wrong business,” Carlyle said. “There’s things you know you’d like to do differently as a staff, as a person, as an individual … points that you felt you should’ve been stronger or softer on.”
Carlyle said with the benefit of hindsight there are things he would have done differently this season. But he stopped well short of citing specific examples.
“I’d be hard and fast on some decisions early in the season and be committed to doing them,” he said. “I don’t really want to get into the ‘such as’ because those are things that are inside and I think it’s best suited that stays there.
“I just know there are things I would do differently and I’d be hard and fast on a couple of the decisions.”