Maple Leafs keep coach Randy Carlyle after deciding there's nobody better available

Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Toronto Maple Leafs NHL hockey team head coach Randy Carlyle speaks to reporters during his year-end address at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto on Tuesday, April 15, 2014. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Darren Calabrese)

Randy Carlyle will return as the coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs, but here’s why: President Brendan Shanahan and general manager Dave Nonis were not excited about the alternatives.

Had Lindy Ruff and Alain Vigneault been available like last year, Carlyle would be gone. Had Mike Babcock, Ken Hitchcock or Todd McLellan been available, Carlyle would be gone. Barry Trotz is available, but Shanahan and Nonis did not think he was the coach to lead the Leafs in the long term. Same for others.

Carlyle is not exactly on a short leash. He received a two-year contract extension Thursday, taking him through 2016-17. But he isn’t safe, either. The extension was to give him credibility in the dressing room. It’s only money to Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment.

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He lost all of his assistants even though he supported them, and it especially hurt him to lose Dave Farrish, his close friend. That was a warning. He will be surrounded with new people – Nonis will steer the process, while he will have input – and Carlyle will be expected to adjust his system. He will be expected to show that 2013-14 was a bad season and he is not a bad coach.

If the Leafs do not improve and someone becomes available who does excite Shanahan and Nonis, Carlyle will be gone.

“If you’re worried about optics in this market, it’s going to be a disaster,” said Nonis in a media conference call. “I think you have to make a decision based on what you think is the best decision for the organization, and this in our minds was clearly the best option.”

At least right now.

This looks bad. The Leafs know that. Former president and GM Brian Burke hired Carlyle as the Leafs collapsed down the stretch in 2011-12, and Carlyle – who won the Norris Trophy as a player and the Stanley Cup as a coach – was supposed to fix their defense. He didn’t do it.

Burke was fired, and Nonis replaced him coming out of the lockout last season. The Leafs made the playoffs and would have upset the Boston Bruins in the first round, if not for an epic meltdown in the third period of Game 7. But even then, the analytics folks said their success was unsustainable.

Nonis went on to part with two of the Leafs’ better possession players – buying out Mikhail Grabovski and letting Clarke MacArthur leave via free agency – while acquiring David Bolland and signing David Clarkson to tailor the team to Carlyle.

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This season was supposed to be a referendum, and boy, was it ever. The Leafs started strong, but as they now admit, it masked their problems. They won with a hot power play, a high shooting percentage and great goaltending, but they were one of the worst possession teams in the NHL, awful on the penalty kill and allowed 35.9 shots per game, the most in the league.

As late as March 14, the Leafs ranked second in the Atlantic Division and third in the Eastern Conference. They had a nine-point cushion in the playoff race. Just 12 days later, after six straight losses in regulation, they were fifth in the Atlantic, 10th in the East and outside the playoff picture. They ended up losing eight straight in regulation and 12 of their last 14.

They blew it, and that was amazing. But it might have been more amazing that they were in position to blow it in the first place.

Carlyle inspires no confidence when he discusses what went wrong. He used the words “mind-boggling” and “confusing” multiple times in the media conference call Thursday. He said he could not understand why what worked on the penalty kill last season didn’t work this season. He said the coaches could not “convince” the players to play the right way.

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Even though he seems to know where the Leafs need to go – “the teams that are having success now are finding ways to play a lot more in the offensive [zone], and special teams are difference-makers in the playoffs” – you wonder if he has the ability to get them there.

Isn’t it the coach’s job to clear up confusion? Shouldn’t he know he needs to adjust, and shouldn’t he know how to do it? Shouldn’t he be able to convince his players to run through a wall? Isn’t that why it’s a cliche?

But Shanahan isn’t stupid, and this isn’t as easy as ABC – anybody but Carlyle.

Shanahan could have cleaned house when he took over April 14. Ideally, he would have a vision for how the Leafs will play. He would hire a GM to fit that vision, they would hire a coach to fit their vision and the organization would build a roster to execute it. He would have made people happy by cleaning house – or at least by sacrificing Carlyle or pushing Nonis to do it.

This isn’t an ideal world, though. Remember a few things: The Leafs pursued Shanahan while he was working for the NHL as the league’s disciplinarian czar, and Shanahan had to make a quick decision. Nonis was already in place. Shanahan didn’t make any bold statements when he took over for a reason. He had to get to work. He had to learn the organization. He hasn’t even been on the job for a month yet.

As he said the day he was introduced, when he asked people for advice around the league, he was told to move slowly and deliberately – to try to improve by small increments. He is still getting to know Nonis and the rest of the hockey department – Claude Loiselle, Dave Poulin, the scouting staff. He doesn’t want the Leafs to hire a new coach today, only to need another new coach in a year or two and become a revolving-door organization.

Leafs fans have every reason to be upset. Their team has not won the Stanley Cup since 1967 and has made the playoffs once in the salary-cap era. It has ignored cutting-edge information and collapsed incredibly. And now it looks like it has made only cosmetic, PR changes – a big-name president, a shuffling of assistant coaches – and could compound the problems if it continues on this course.

But this is just the beginning of the Shanahan era, and this still might be the beginning of the end for Carlyle.