Randy Carlyle: A Sort of Homecoming

The firing of Ron Wilson and the return of Randy Carlyle to NHL coaching was the culmination of the Sam Peckinpah-like slow-motion collapse of the Maple Leafs during the month of February. Leafs fans, the Toronto press, the players, and Leafs management itself (once again faced with another potential denial from the Stanley Cup playoffs) all played their respective roles in the never-ending saga of the franchise’s 45-year Stanley Cup drought.

The selection of Randy Carlyle as head coach was a no-brainer. He possesses all the key ingredients: he is a Brian Burke protégé (it was Burke who hired him at Anaheim); a Stanley Cup winning coach (which Ron Wilson wasn’t); a high-octane, steely-eyed personality (which again Ron Wilson wasn’t); a former Maple Leafs player (he’s the 16th person to both play and head coach the team) and (despite Anaheim’s poor start this season) he remains a bloody good head coach.

By my rating system he was the best coach on the board and if Toronto hadn’t hired him another team would have during the off season. Brian Burke in his press conference last Saturday alluded to the fact that he considered former Stars head coach Marc Crawford before choosing Carlyle. Personally (for me) the selection of Carlyle over Crawford was the wiser one.

Marc Crawford has not had a solid coaching season since 2003-04. During the past five seasons of his NHL coaching career his stock had been declining. If one used a plus/minus system of rating his performance his score would be a minus seven. Marc Crawford’s time as an NHL coach has passed in my opinion.

The same cannot be said about Randy Carlyle. His hiring by Toronto is only his second NHL head-coaching gig. He still has a lot to contribute to the game. Although his time at his introductory press conference was brief his perceptions and analyses of the Leafs were keen and on-target.

Unlike Ken Hitchcock or Darryl Sutter, Carlyle has no time for a tactical makeover. The change must come from the spirit; the psyche; the will.

Randy emphasized a restoration of the team’s confidence and aggressiveness (especially the latter) as his paramount goals. Two-fisted aggressiveness was the hallmark of his Anaheim Duck teams and that’s what Toronto needs right now: controlled violence, willingness, passion, and aggression.

I suspect that high above in Toronto Maple Leafs Valhalla (which is built in the shape of Maple Leaf Gardens) one might detect celestial grins from the shades of Conn Smythe and Punch Imlach—both of whom demanded and got the aforesaid qualities that Toronto needs right now.

But can Toronto reach the playoffs?

Since Carlyle’s accession the Leafs have gone 1-2-0 and they lost a God-given opportunity to move up the Eastern Conference standings last Tuesday night when they lost 4-3 to the defending Stanley-Cup champion Bruins (despite a valiant and determined effort from the team). That same evening Tampa and Washington both lost (and the Buffalo Sabres also lost the night before to Winnipeg).

Had there been a Toronto victory against Boston then the Leafs could have vaulted from twelfth to tenth place in the Eastern Conference standings; only one point behind the ninth place Caps and only three points behind the eighth place Winnipeg Jets. Such opportunities are rare in hockey and missing them can only bode ill for a team’s playoff chances. Indeed their loss to Pittsburgh (after leading the game 2-0) is quite possibly the death blow to the Leafs playoff chances. The failure to close the deal against Pittsburgh; the failure to withstand the Penguins determined offense is not the stuff of Stanley Cup playoff contenders.

If Carlyle cannot lead the Maple Leafs into the post-season then his secondary mission is to shake up the team and assess the inner qualities of his players. Randy Carlyle is a walking blast furnace of a head coach; and a blast furnace can do one of two things: it can forge raw iron into the sharpest, purest form of steel that can slice through the toughest opposition. Or else it can melt and reduce the raw material; exposing its flaws and weaknesses; relegating it to worthless slag, fit only for disposal.

The Leafs players can either prove to themselves, Randy Carlyle, and Leafs nation that they are worthy to wear the Leafs uniform or else it’s time for Carlyle and Leafs GM Brian Burke to build a brand new team.

Time will tell.

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