Fire Randy Carlyle: The 18-Wheeler Part II

Patience is a virtue the Toronto Maple Leafs organization continuously fails to embrace. You know the history. I won’t bombard you with tales of the “Draft Smaft” ‘90s and beyond, or the Harold Ballard debacle that was the 1980s. And, here we are again: the Leafs are in a troubling predicament, stranded in the middle of hockey nowhere; not god awful enough to draft top three next summer, and not even close to being realistically capable of vying for a Stanley Cup title in the spring. And the general consensus has become, fire Randy Carlyle.  

IF this current core of Toronto Maple Leafs has quit on its coach, that makes two bench boss bailouts spanning the winter of 2012 to the winter of 2014. Not a good sign on the players, who as recently as two seasons ago became synonymous with an 18-wheeler driving off a cliff. Fitting, that after each Hurricanes goal last night an intrusive “HONK HONK HONK” loudly resonated three times over at the PNC Arena in Raleigh, NC. I don’t know about you, but those honks sounded like that ol’ 18-wheeler… broadcasting the message: “GET OUT THE WAY! LEAFS COMING THROUGH!”

Night after night I witness an uninspired brand of Leafs hockey that can be quantified in a tweet courtesy of The Globe’s James Mirtle:

Since the beginning of November the Buds have won a mere four games in regulation. If not for a disarrayed Eastern Conference we’d have been talking 1st overall pick since American Thanksgiving. Finally, the rest of the East has caught up; a bad omen for the struggling Leafs.

Repeatedly being outshot – the Leafs have only outshot opponents in 7 of 45 games this season – is a recipe for failure pie. The result of poor play: a view from 10th in the East; on the outside looking in again; a placement in the standings the Leafs have occupied for the bulk of the last decade.

Paul Maurice, Ron Wilson, and now Carlyle. Oh boy.

Calls of “Fire Randy Carlyle” are getting louder with each disappointing loss and questionable starting lineup. The head coach decided to healthy scratch smooth skating Jake Gardiner last night, causing critics to question his player personnel decisions. I don’t understand the overreaction, personally. I guess it took the Leafs finally slipping from their desperate grasp of a wild card spot for some fans to admit this team isn’t that good. The truth is, Gardiner isn’t taking control of hockey games like was expected of him this season. He is not serving as the force he was touted to become after performing so authoritatively in the first round of the 2013 Stanley Cup playoffs against the Boston Bruins. Obviously, without Gardiner in the lineup, the Leafs biggest weakness – their inability to possess the puck – can only be hindered. That being said, how are they doing with him in the lineup? The answer is a resounding ditto.

Jake Gardiner averages more ice time per game – 21:39 to be exact – than any defenceman on the Leafs blueline not named Dion Phaneuf. Jake has played in 43 of the Leafs 45 games this season. With or without him the Leafs give up way too many shots against; rely much too inequitably on their goaltenders; get destroyed down-the-middle by bigger, stronger, more tenacious centremen on opposing teams. Aside from Kulemin and Clarkson, the Buds repeatedly get eaten alive for loose pucks along the boards near their own defensive blueline, a major cause of their incessant bouts of defensive zone puck chasing. The point is, the Leafs struggles are bigger than Jake Gardiner, bigger than Randy Carlyle, and bigger than the awkward dynamic between the two of ‘em. Flat out, the Leafs problems are just BIG.

There are so many stats denoting the Leafs 2013-14 shortcomings. Follow @JonasTSN1050, @mirtle, or @reporterchris on Twitter and you’ll receive thorough evaluations of the club’s consistent causes for concern.

Perhaps expectations were simply too high when the 2013-14 NHL campaign began. And the worst possible scenario transpired – the Leafs had a misleadingly strong first month – earning wins despite being outworked and outplayed by coming-together, early season opponents.

Boooollaaaaaaaand! Heeeeeeeeelp!

To be clear, I’m not claiming Randy Carlyle should inherit no blame for the Leafs fall from unwarranted grace, just that, he’s only one malfunction amidst several others.

Phil Kessel has disappeared again. Such a talent. Such an uninvolved talent he is. Phil Kessel should be scoring 40, or even 50 plus goals in the NHL with his skill set. Seriously, he absolutely flies with the puck, and snaps intelligently placed, quickly released low shots that often stifle netminders, while lesser talents prefer to shoot high and wide, or into awaiting goaltenders’ mitts to no avail. But, that predictable disappearing act always seems to prevent him from arriving as a Rocket Richard candidate. That’s just how Phil plays though, so I guess the club’s recent struggles are not his fault, as the highest paid player and go-to offensive weapon on a team that can’t buy a win. The Kessel criticism has all but died after he scored a few goals against the Bruins in the playoffs. But what has he done for you lately?

Dion Phaneuf – who I used to criticize quite regularly – is a solid frame on a defence corps constructed of out-of-place pieces that have been kicked to the curb by other NHL teams. How can one even assess Dion’s tenure with the Leafs considering he’s never enjoyed the company of a meritorious defence partner? Short of playing the game at the level of Chris Pronger, good defencemen need to be surrounded by other good defencemen to truly shine. There are six guys on the ice, after all. See the Bruins’s Zdeno Chara without Seidenberg.

Cody Franson, Jake Gardiner, and Nazem Kadri formulate a trio that – based on expectations set last season – has regressed in 2013-14.

The former, Franson, has struggled at providing consistent quality minutes as a top four defenceman. Remember, he played third-pairing last season; was insulated.

Gardiner and Kadri are often the objects of affection among Leaf fans because they occasionally display redeeming qualities on the ice, but for every inspiring moment, there seems to be twenty soft plays that result in blown defensive duties and goals against. Both players have been the subject of several trade rumours because of the infrequent flashes of brilliance they’ve exhibited at times in their respective careers. BUT, in both cases, the complete product has yet to manifest into top-pairing defenceman with Gardiner, or second-line centre with Kadri. Patience.

The goaltenders. Those poor Leafs goaltenders. Night after night they are barraged by a multitude of shots with little defensive support. Jonathan Bernier and James Reimer are the only reason the Leafs have as many wins as they do this season. As last line of defence they will inevitably shoulder much of the blame, but it’s bigger than the goaltenders, and Jake Gardiner, and Randy Carlyle.

Fire Randy Carlyle. Or don’t. How many coaches can we blame? And which prodigious coaching candidate is lurking in the shadows, awaiting the opportunity to coach the Toronto Maple Leafs into a wild card spot by season’s end?

The firing of coach number two in two years will do nothing more than provide a surge that can achieve, in all likelihood – a first round matchup against the Pittsburgh Penguins next spring. Is getting rag dolled by the explosive Penguins in the first round – a team that is loaded with goal scorers – the best course of action for the Toronto Maple Leafs? Drafting players like Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Drew Doughty, or Tyler Seguin is a nice alternative option. Maybe a downward spiral isn’t the worst thing that can happen to the Leafs this season, is all I’m saying. The last time the Leafs’ 18-wheeler drove of a cliff the club drafted bright-light, Morgan Rielly. The kid looks like a player.

Traditionally, Leafs management – whichever regime you’d like – suffer from a revolving desire to find the quickest fix and sell it as a promising product. This strategy doesn’t work, yet continues to be practiced. See the Pittsburgh Penguins before 2008, Chicago Blackhawks before 2009, and Los Angeles Kings before 2011. Better yet, ask yourself, how has the quick fix ideology worked for the Leafs lately?

Eventually, the cries of “Fire Randy Carlyle” will be met with his termination because of his team’s poor play. And certainly, the head coach should take some of the blame for a losing record, and his team’s inability to compete, execute, and drive possession. However, when management finally do fire Randy Carlyle, this borderline playoff team will not become a juggernaut. Conversely, they’ll just discover a new way to regress to the mean, or worse. They don’t have the horses, yet.

The good news is, the Leafs can’t lose. The ongoing soap opera that is their story will unfold however it does, and we, as fans, will remain loyal, harshly criticizing every slide and optimistically praising every winning streak. Meanwhile, the Leafs will remain in the middle of hockey nowhere, not quite a contender, not quite a true rebuilder; they’ll remain a borderline Eastern Conference playoff team with glaring holes at centre, on defence, in team building philosophy, and perhaps behind the bench. Although, before we completely blame the coach for this team’s terrible play, let us consider this: when an NHL team falls off a cliff in back-to-back 82-game seasons with two different head coaches, BUT, makes the playoffs in an absurd shortened season, then loses a first round epic in the most embarrassing fashion, perhaps the shortened season was the fluke, and the surrounding full seasons are more indicative of said team’s current state. You can fire Randy Carlyle, but much more work needs to be done before reoccurring problems become rectified. Patience. Because it may take awhile. But Go Leafs Go!