ANAHEIM, Calif. – On a Monday morning at Honda Center the Anaheim Ducks finished briskly paced on-ice exercises in 45 minutes.
If this was any other NHL team, such a fact would seem normal. But the man barking the orders and calling the drills was Randy Carlyle – who in previous coaching incarnations was known as the king of the marathon practice.
“Today is an example of things that he has changed and adapted a little bit to the game and to the way things are now,” said Ducks captain Ryan Getzlaf. “I think he has (also) brought a lot of the same characteristics he used to have back, which in part are a lot of the good things we’re doing.”
Carlyle and the Ducks both insist the coach has changed and softened to a degree in his second stint with the team. The gruff exterior isn’t gone, but it’s lightened with a quip or a joke.
The man who led Anaheim to the 2007 Stanley Cup still demands attention from his players, but also gets the fact that an athlete in today’s game needs more rest and requires time with friends and family to handle the demands of a full season. There are questions about his on-ice approach and whether it jibes with today’s puck-possession game – a stigma that came to fruition during his three-plus years as the head coach with the Toronto Maple Leafs. But he notes that he’s up to date with the most current coaching techniques and understands the importance of changing and adapting.
“You grow. If you don’t grow, if you’re not willing to be somewhat of a sponge, you’re not going to last,” Carlyle said. “You have to make adjustments along the way. There’s things you steal from other people. You’ve made mistakes before and you’re not going to allow yourself to make that mistake again. (You) try something you maybe wouldn’t have tried before all those things, you have to be willing to accept that things aren’t always going to be the same. They’re not going to stay the same and that’s just life.”
Though Carlyle was born in Ontario and played most of his career in Winnipeg, he’s now more California to the core.
After he got to the Maple Leafs, he and his wife decided to buy a home in Encinitas, which is near San Diego and about 70 miles south of Anaheim. Carlyle believed that this would eventually become his retirement home.
During his first stint with the Ducks from 2005-06 through 2011-12 when he was fired, he went all-in on the area. He loved the Southern California car culture. He went to Santa Anita and Del Mar horse racing tracks. He enjoyed being able to fish and have outdoorsy elements at his fingertips along with everything else the region had to offer.
“The one thing I haven’t done is long walks on the beach with the wife,” Carlyle joked.
Two of his sons work around San Diego – one as a coach for the Jr. Gulls, a youth team in San Diego, and another at the pro shop Carlyle owns at Ice-Plex Escondido.
“My wife and I, we’ve lived in different places and we’re people that believe when you go to a community you live in a community, you don’t just live there and close your doors,” Carlyle said. “We’re not big social people from a standpoint but we do get out and see things.”
Carlyle pointed out that he also loved Toronto. He bought a home there as well and his daughter still lives in the area. But that love was mixed with an incredible amount of pressure and grind that came with coaching the Leafs from 2011-12 until he was fired in 2014.
“The intensity level was, at times, could be overbearing, just from a standpoint of everything you did was news,” Carlyle said. “Everything that, if you didn’t do something it was news and if you did something it was news, it didn’t matter what it was, it was news. That was the most, I guess, the most intense situation I’ve ever been in.”
Overall, Carlyle tried to do the best he could with a team that accelerated a rebuild with ‘win-now’ type trades to mollify the hungry fan base. The Leafs got to the playoffs in 2012-13 and were within minutes of winning a round before a furious comeback by the Boston Bruins eliminated Toronto in Game 7.
Even if the Leafs had won that game and moved on, the team led by a core of Dion Phaneuf and Phil Kessel didn’t seem to reach the same level as other more established groups around the league. This put Carlyle in an uncomfortable spot of trying to deal with major expectations without the type of talent that could consistently deliver.
“It was unrealistic but the difference is they went into a rebuild and the players that we had and the personnel that we had at that time, we were not expected to challenge for the Stanley Cup,” Carlyle said. “We were expected to win as many games as we possibly could and show some progression, but it was all about winning, it wasn’t about building a team, it wasn’t about building for the future. It was a totally different mandate than what they have now.”
Around the Maple Leafs, it was believed Carlyle didn’t push puck possession and analytics, and in some ways shunned it.
The Washington Post noted how Toronto’s score-adjusted Corsi 5-on-5 dropped under Carlyle.
During Carlyle’s next stop in Toronto he made the postseason only once, and the puck possession numbers under his reign started at 49 percent when he was hired and subsequently dropped to 46, 44 and 46 percent over the next three years, which eventually resulted in his firing. The first season without Carlyle on the bench saw an immediate jump to 51 percent.
Carlyle said he believes in analytics and believed in analytics when he was with the Leafs. But he also used other ways to determine how to best get the most out of his team.
“Analytics has its spot in sports. It’s not that it’s not. It’s a tool and it’s how you utilize that tool and what you feel is important, and we use analytics here,” Carlyle said. “I can only speak for when I was there and there was an understanding analytics were available and we would utilize them, but we didn’t utilize them as the end-all.”
When the Leafs fired Carlyle in 2014, they did so when the team had a 21-16-3 record and was squarely in the playoff hunt. They ended the season at 30-44-8 and with the fourth worst record in the NHL. Carlyle finished his Toronto tenure with a 91-78-19 record and remains the only coach to guide them to the playoffs since the 2004-05 lockout.
“You don’t really think of it as anything more than it’s a position. It’s a job and a job that comes with a lot of pressure,” Carlyle said.
After Toronto let him go, Carlyle returned to Encinitas.
He scouted some Ducks games and used his location there as place of refuge where he could relax, but also easily get to hockey games in and around Southern California’s growing puck-head culture. He also tried to recharge his batteries and did some renovations to the place to make it more livable.
“We (thought) it would be a nice landing spot for the winter months and spend two months in Canada for the summer months and the rest there,” Carlyle said.
Then the Ducks fired head coach Bruce Boudreau after a seven-game first-round playoff loss to the Nashville Predators and Carlyle’s plans quickly changed. Anaheim players who had played for Carlyle in the past started to believe that perhaps he was the type of coach they needed. The knock on Boudreau was that he could get too emotional behind the bench in big games, which in part led to Anaheim’s 0-4 record in Game 7s during his tenure.
Carlyle, on the other hand, was the exact opposite. Players remembered Carlyle as a coach who stayed calm in important moments and deftly used the right types of match-ups in critical situations.
“Everyone knows Randy’s a structured guy. He’s an intense guy. He’s a bench boss who tends to know what’s going on during the game,” Getzlaf said.
Still, there were some questions on bringing back a coach who seemed to have trouble getting through to his players by the end.
“A lot of those other things and the cons were the fact that he was coming back to a group that had fired him, so there’s a reason that he left the first time. It wasn’t like nobody knew what it was so we had to address some of those issues,” Getzlaf said. “I think Randy over time adapted a little. Players adapted. We have a lot of changeover in the room, too. It wasn’t as big a worry of ours because the guys who were left here, we got along with him great. There was no arguments there.”
Added Getzlaf: “The biggest thing I think that group had, we had a lot of guys who were here for a long time listening to the same message over and over again. At that time it was the right decision for us to make a change.”
Only Getzlaf, Perry, Cam Fowler and Andrew Cogliano remain from Carlyle’s previous tenure and they all seem to have no problem with the coach. Some of the Ducks’ younger players seem clueless about any perceived baggage that came with Carlyle. To them, he’s just their coach and they listen to him.
“I didn’t know him personally but he had some success in the past so it was exciting to get to meet him and see what he was all about,” said young winger Nick Ritchie. “I think he’s a coach who expects (big things) from his players. I think every coach expects that. Maybe that gets caught in the fact that his teams play hard and play physical in that sense. Other than that, I think he has been really fair with the guys and done a great job so far.”
Said defenseman Hampus Lindholm: “He shows strict lines and he wants guys to follow them so, he’s good in that way.”
This season the Ducks have dropped off from a puck-possession perspective, with a 48.76 adjusted 5-on-5 CF%. Last season they ranked second in the NHL at 53.07.
But through 23 games they hold an 11-8-4 record, which is better than where they were at this point a year ago at 8-11-4. The Ducks also say they’re playing a more structured game and better using their size to bulldoze their way to the opposing team’s net for higher-percentage scoring chances, which has led to more consistent outings night-in and night-out.
“We’d like to make sure we can put pucks into (that) area and drive it because that’s where the goals are being scored,” Carlyle said. “The goals are not being scored from the outside. You’re seeing all the goals being scored from the 10-foot area, the high tip, the second-chance rebound, the wraparound, all that stuff is now from where a majority of goals are being scored and they’re going to continue to be even tighter in those areas as you go into the season.”
They’ve also played a large part of their season without Lindholm and forward Rickard Rakell – top players who missed time due to contract disputes and injuries.
“It has been unsettling but we knew it was going to be a different type of year and I think a lot of teams are dealing with the same thing,” Carlyle said.
While Carlyle has kept his steely demeanor in some areas, his adjustment on the human side of the game has been real and noticeable.
For example, the night before a Nov. 1 game at the Kings, he allowed some of the older players to go trick-or-treating with their kids and then drive down to Los Angeles later, rather than being forced to jump on a bus to the team hotel with the whole group. This type of gesture, where Carlyle may not have bended in years past, could pay off during the long haul of the season.
“It’s no secret the way the game is heading, you have to have your legs and you have to be able to skate and be conditioned and you can’t do that if you’re out there for an hour and 15 minutes skating around,” Fowler said. “You’re not going to be as well rested as you need to be. I think it’s just the schedule and the brand of hockey we’re playing now, you’ve seen those changes with him.”
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