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The last days of Randy Carlyle

Greg Wyshynski
Puck Daddy

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The danger of going on a reality show is how one moment can come to define you, for better or worse. Like Jessica Simpson’s confusion over whether the tuna in her “Chicken of the Sea” can was actually poultry. Or Bruce Boudreau getting so riled up that his profanity manifested in metaphorical gibberish.

Thus, after HBO "24/7", Randy Carlyle is The Guy Who Couldn’t Work A Toaster, which is an unfortunate trait when you’re also seen as The Guy Who Can’t Coach The Toronto Maple Leafs.

Both seem so simply in concept: Play your best players instead of having a slavish reliance on role players of limited skill; have a defensive system that doesn’t result in over 36 shots on goal against per night; execute a gameplan that stresses solid positioning and simple plays, elementary stuff that’s supposed to be second-nature for paid professionals.

Or, in other words: Put bread in the hot thing and watch it come out as toast.

But in both situations, Carlyle’s either getting toasted or not getting his toast, watching with a befuddled grin as the situation spirals into embarrassment.

The Leafs are now out of a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, dropping to fifth in the Atlantic with 47 points and behind the Carolina Hurricanes (47 points) who have 18 regulation or overtime wins to the Leafs’ 14. That seven-win disparity between the Leafs’ shootout-inflated win total (21) and their ROW (14) is second only to the Washington Capitals, their opponent on Friday night, for the largest in the Eastern Conference.

This death spiral in the standings, chronicled with picturesque cinematography on HBO, has featured 22 out of 24 games in which the Leafs didn’t win in regulation.

Oh, the numbers. The numbers don’t lie.

The 36.4 shots per game surrendered to opponents, which (if it holds) would be the highest since the 2005 lockout.

Their puck possession numbers are atrocious; back when the Leafs were winning, there was a cottage industry of “how the [expletive] are they defying the obvious advanced stats pointing to their inevitable demise?” stories.

They’ve only led after the first period 11 times in 45 games, going on to lose four of them. When trailing after two periods, they’re rallied to win once in 13 games.

They’re a mess. And they’re Carlyle’s mess.

James Mirtle of the Globe & Mail went rip city on the beleaguered coach after Thursday night’s 6-1 loss to the Hurricanes:

“This is a bad hockey team playing very bad hockey right now, a group being made worse by the some of the bizarre decisions made by head coach Randy Carlyle night after night.

“Smaller, offence-first defencemen like Gardiner and John-Michael Liles have been benched in favour of underperforming big men like Mark Fraser and Paul Ranger, despite the fact the blueline’s play with the puck has been a huge contributor to their possession woes.

“Enforcers are dressed every night, but their line almost never sees the ice, with Colton Orr’s 33 seconds of ice time in Thursday’s first period evidence of a trend that only puts more pressure on the other units.

“And useful player after useful player has been ostracized, pushed out or limited under Carlyle’s watch, with former Leafs like Mikhail Grabovski and Clarke MacArthur speaking publicly against the coach’s methods and current players like Gardiner and Nazem Kadri now being spun through the trade rumour mill due to their incompatibility with the system.”

That kind of mindset is what eventually leads you to trading Russ Courtnall for John Kordic.

Which is to say that, overall, it’s an organizational failing to sacrifice skill for grit, but it’s Carlyle’s failing that the Leafs are so damn easy to play against, getting effortlessly pinned in their own zone like a freshman wrestler.

Or as Mirtle put it: “They can’t score. They can’t defend. They can’t make simple plays with the puck, and they suddenly look very much like the disjointed bunch that they were under former coach Ron Wilson by the end.”

Were this Ron Wilson, the chants from fans and the catcalls from media to fire him would be deafening. But Carlyle gets an odd pass from some.

Maybe because, unlike Wilson, he rode stellar goaltending to a playoff berth, only to see his team piss it away in Game 7 against Boston. Maybe because, unlike Wilson, he’s able to keep this team near a playoff spot in 2014, relying on the shootout and the NHL’s forced parity to cover the Leafs’ stench with the perfume of contention.

Maybe because unlike Wilson, he has THAT RING, which earns Carlyle leeway from some pundits whom we’re sure at no point ever argue that Bob Hartley, Marc Crawford or John Tortorella should be fired.

Carlyle’s defenders will ask “if not Randy than who?”, which then leads his detractors to say “anyone that doesn’t dress Colton Orr 33 times at six minutes a clip” and/or “Peter Laviolette.” But when Randy goes, and he will go, it’ll likely be assistant coach Scott Gordon who takes over.

(Gordon’s smart guy; we hope he’s kidding about that whole “dressing two enforcers” thing.)

Hockey coaching doesn’t have to be overcomplicated. You play your best guys. You play a style that reduces the amount of opportunities your opponents have to score on you. You stick the bread in the hot thing and the toast comes out.

Or sometimes the toast gets stuck. And then once you’ve dug its burnt, nearly inedible slab out of the toaster, you’re confronted with the fact there’s only almond butter. Yuck, almond butter.

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