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Does Maple Leafs GM Dave Nonis understand his own team?

Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle, top center, looks on in the final minutes of an NHL hockey game against the Winnipeg Jets during third-period NHL hockey game action in Toronto, Saturday, April 5, 2014. The Jets won 4-2
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Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle, top center, looks on in the final minutes of an NHL hockey game against the Winnipeg Jets during third-period NHL hockey game action in Toronto, Saturday, April 5, 2014. The Jets won 4-2. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Nathan Denette)

According to GM Dave Nonis in a TSN Radio interview on Thursday, here’s how the 2013-14 Toronto Maple Leafs season went:

It began with the same level of commitment to defense that landed the Leafs in the Stanley Cup Playoffs last postseason, and Toronto found more success. But, alas, they “went through a period of winning a lot of hockey games because we had talent” and not because the players were adhering to that system.

As in, the Leafs went 9-4-1 in October and then won five of their next 33 games in regulation.

“When we started to falter, it was difficult to get it back,” he said.

The rest, as they say, was a problematic, middling campaign that resulted in a non-playoff season and underlying stats that showed systemic problems with the Leafs’ play. One assumed Coach Randy Carlyle would take the blame for this, and yet he survived the purging of his assistant coaches with a new two-year extension.

“I don’t believe when things start to go bad, the popular notion is that it’s the coach’s fault,” said Nonis.

The most interesting facets of Nonis’ philosophy on coaches, and his own coach, that’s come out of Thursday’s rounds of interviews is that he believes an ineffective system is (a) only ineffective because the players aren’t committed to it, but also (b) that the system’s flaws can be corrected by bringing in new assistant coaches, rather than turfing that system’s architect.

The first notion seems at odds with the reality of Carlyle’s ineffectiveness as a coach in the last five years, in which his teams have been in the bottom six in shot differential. This season, the Leafs game up more shots than any other team.

“Yeah, it does concern me,” said Nonis. “That’s part of the discussion that we’ve had as a group already. We have to change the way we play, be more committed defensively. The players have to be more committed to play the system and the style that’s put in front of them.”

Which brings us to the second part of his philosophy, which is that a head coach’s problems can be solved with new assistants. There’s been some precedent for this recently, as Larry Robinson was brought into San Jose and Jacques Martin was added to Pittsburgh bench, in both cases to coach the defense.

Nonis sees it like a football team swapping out coordinators while the head coach remains.

Of course, when that happens, it usually means the coach isn't long for that team, either.

So essentially, the Leafs will spend the offseason finding assistant coaches that can implement new systems; finding players that will commit to playing those systems, even though the players currently on the roster that can't seem to commit to one all track back to Nonis and his predecessor; and putting all of it in the hands of a head coach whose system over the last five years has turned his own net into a carnival shooting gallery and who has shown an inability to keep his players committed to playing a system through 82 games.

Look, the bottom line is that Carlyle will be fired if the Leafs have a bad first few months. Giving him this extension buys Nonis some time, and allows him to make a hire in-season that, in theory, turns the Leafs around in some way that makes him look good.

That buys him even more time under a team president that never hired him.

It's all about survival. For Nonis, bringing Carlyle back as a domino to eventually fall ensures his for a bit longer.

 

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