The Toronto Maple Leafs have fired coach Randy Carlyle. Going forward, should they shoot for the moon with Mike Babcock or target a coach more readily available?
It’s one of the least surprising moves of 2014-15. And yet, it’s the talk of the hockey world. Randy Carlyle coaches the Toronto Maple Leafs no more.
Hiring Carlyle in the first place three years ago always seemed an odd fit. He carried a Cup-winning reputation from his days helming the Anaheim Ducks, but he was also “the coach who made fighting en vogue” on that 2007 championship team, and there he was, taking over a 2012 edition of the Leafs that made its hay on speed and finesse, icing fleet-of-foot units like Mikhail Grabovski between Clarke MacArthur and Nikolay Kulemin.
The square peg stuffed itself into the round hole with reasonable success in 2012-13, as Carlyle helped Toronto reach its first playoffs since 2003-04, but it was speed, not brawn, that had the team within a whisker of upsetting the Boston Bruins in seven games. Nevertheless, Grabovski, MacArthur and Kulemin don’t play for the Leafs anymore, and GM Dave Nonis gradually molded the team into more of a “Carlyle” blueprint. That included signing David Clarkson, swapping John-Michael Liles for Tim Gleason and, this past summer, dealing Carl Gunnarsson for Roman Polak and signing Stephane Robidas.
Carlyle guided Toronto to a respectable 91-78-19 record during his tenure, and he had the Leafs 21-16-3 this season, good enough to cling to the Eastern Conference’s bottom playoff rung for now.
The wall, however, was so covered in writing you’d mistake it for a graffiti mural. The hirings of Kyle Dubas, Cam Charron, Darryl Metcalf and Rob Pettapiece signalled Toronto’s shift toward an analytics-first philsophy, and we all know the enduring hallmark of the Carlyle era was horrible analytics. Per puckalytics.com, the Leafs’ Corsi Close ranks in each Carlyle season or half-season: 24th, 29th, 29th and 28th. The ice consistently tilts the other team’s way. The Leafs have always given up far more chances than they’ve generated under Carlyle, making them too dependent on goaltending. That’s why the stat geeks correctly predicted the Leafs’ regression last season and why no one’s heart rate climbed when Toronto sat 19-9-3 after six straight wins in mid-December. The numbers said this team was due for a tailspin again. That’s exactly what happened, and that’s why Tuesday’s firing was utterly predictable.
Bringing in the advanced stats brain trust over the summer made Carlyle’s fresh two-year extension look like a farce, and even the Leafs’ assistant coaching hires made it clear the team kept Carlyle’s leash mere inches long. Peter Horachek has recent NHL experience leading the Florida Panthers. Steve Spott is a steady riser, having coached the OHL’s Kitchener Rangers, AHL’s Toronto Marlies and even the Canadian world junior squad in 2013. The two will man the Leafs bench Wednesday night against Washington, with Horachek likely to take the main interim gig given his NHL resume.
But what happens after that? It largely depends on how high Toronto wants to aim for its next coach.
If it wants to pounce on the best available candidates, the unemployed coaches, it can act any time. It can take a hard look at former Penguins coach Dan Bylsma, widely perceived as the best catch on the market right now, or recent castoffs Paul MacLean and Pete DeBoer, who didn’t have a ton to work with talent-wise in Ottawa and New Jersey, respectively, this season. There’s also psychology master Guy Boucher and even ex-Marlies boss Dallas Eakins, but not even the Leafs will approach the drama of bringing Eakins back after the Edmonton debacle. Right?!
The other route for Nonis and president Brendan Shanahan is high-risk, high-gain. Say it with me on one, two, three…
He’s the coach Shanahan has long been rumored to covet. He’s the coach every darn team remotely dissatisfied with its coach would be silly not to covet. Toronto seems an ideal challenge for the brash Babcock, who has a Stanley Cup and two gold medals, might want to reach a new summit and is thick-skinned enough to handle the pressure of hockey’s media epicenter.
But making Horachek and/or Spott interim head coach(es) to wait for Babcock comes with deadly pitfalls. Every day spent holding out for Babock to sign or not sign an extension with the Detroit Red Wings is a day for another team to woo Bylsma, MacLean and DeBoer, among others. Also, Babcock is a smart cookie and knows the Leafs’ sudden vacancy gives him excellent leverage in negotiations with Detroit. It’s possible he wants to come to Toronto, but it’s just as possible he has no intention of leaving the Motor City and will simply use the Leaf rumors to help him land a beauty of a deal with Wings GM Ken Holland. The glass-half-full take is that none of the big-name coaches on the market will join new teams before the season is up anyway and that Toronto will get a shot at every one of them even if it waits until the summer.
The next few months will be the most defining of the Shanahan era to date. Will he risk egg on his face and wait for Babcock, or will he settle for a safe but arguably lower-ceiling option?
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin