Randy Carlyle is a great NHL coach, but maybe not for the Burke-built 2013-2014 Toronto Maple Leafs.
Carlyle proved his worth with a young Mighty Ducks of Anaheim team, leading them into the 2006 Western Conference Finals in his first year as a head coach in the league. The next year, having welcomed the addition of Chris Pronger to his defense core, Carlyle led the unfortunately rebranded Anaheim Ducks to the franchise’s first Stanley Cup victory. His team dismantled the President’s Trophy winning Ottawa Senators in a very convincing five game series. The Senators never had a chance.
Carlyle’s short, albeit successful, tenure as the Ducks’ head coach came to an abrupt end in 2011 after having won only three games in stretch of 19. The organization felt as though he had lost the room and that the 200-foot system that he had spent years developing was unsuitable for the player personnel moving forward. As a result, Carlyle’s entire coaching staff was relieved of its duties, and replaced with a staff led by Bruce Boudreau, who had been fired only 72 hours earlier by a struggling Washington Capitals team that had repeatedly failed to translate regular season success to playoff success. In last year’s 48 game, condensed season, Boudreau coached the Ducks to a dominant 30-12-6 record, good for top spot in a tough Pacific Division. The Ducks have had a successful 2013-2014 campaign to date, boasting a 17-7-3 record, trailing only the surging San Jose Sharks for the Pacific Division lead. Boudreau deploys a heavy forecheck and an aggressive offense. His style has had success in Anaheim with a big, fast and skilled group of forwards anchored by a mobile defense core. Conversely, Randy Carlyle’s system did not work with this type of team- at least after he lost his two hall-of-fame defensemen- and that does not bode well for Leafs fans. I contend that Carlyle and the player personnel assembled by Brian Burke over the course of the past five seasons are incompatible. Here is why.
Carlyle prefers collapsing forwards down low when the puck is in the defensive zone. He has one defenseman trail the puck carrier behind the net and another clear the space in front. This leaves the opposing team’s defense uncovered at their points and results in a large number of shots on the Leafs’ goal. It also allows relatively easy puck cycling for the opposition. As a result, the Leafs often are left defending in their own zone, battling long periods of sustained pressure. In the 2012-2013 season, the Toronto penalty kill ranked second in the league at 87.9%. This year, it has fallen to 79.4%. Carlyle employs the same system and the same personnel as he did last year, so what has changed?
In 25 games this season, Carlyle’s Leafs have taken 112 minor penalties, trailing only Ottawa and the Los Angeles Kings for the most in the NHL. They are on pace over the course of 48 games to take 215, or 40 more, minors than last year’s ending mark of 175. Similarly, the Ottawa Senators ended their 2012-2013 campaign with 196 minors. They sit, through 26 games this season, on pace for 234 over the course of 48 games. Last year, the Leafs second ranked penalty kill was bested only by Ottawa’s. This year, they sit 20th and 21st respectively. The two teams are built similarly; they employ the same style of special teams players. As they have taken more penalties, they have seen proportionately lower penalty kill percentages. The notion emerges, from these similarities, that an overworked penalty kill will naturally have less success than one that sees fewer minutes. This effect is compounded by the overuse of Jay McClemment, Carlyle’s go-to penalty killing centre, in 5v5 play. He has seen an increase of two minutes per game in ice-time since last season, and with injuries to Tyler Bozak and David Bolland, has played more minutes than any other centre in the Leafs lineup.
Carlyle’s penalties killer are simply overworked. Their results on the penalty kill and on the scoreboard are suffering likewise. This has never been so glaringly obvious as it was in the Leafs’ most recent loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins, wherein they coughed up three power-play goals and looked sluggish.
To summarize, the Leafs’ collapsing defensive-zone strategy is facilitating more chances and more sustained pressure against. The sustained pressure leads to longer shifts, tiring the bodies and minds of those who Carlyle likes to refer to as the "receivers of the play". The forwards become lost in open-space and the defense make ill-advised first-pass decisions. When the Leafs finally recover the puck they, more often than not, dump it off the high glass for a change. Rinse, repeat.
The substantial drop in the success of Carlyle’s 200-foot strategy since last season can be attributed to player personnel. In Anaheim, he saw success with his strategy in the years that had Chris Pronger and Scott Neidermeyer bolstering his defense. Neidermeyer’s vision, smooth skating and remarkable stick work enabled him to chase the puck carrier effectively. The big-bodied Pronger was a solid stay-at-home defenseman who had little trouble clearing the front of the net. In their cup winning season, Neidermeyer and Pronger led the Ducks in ice-time with 27:31 and 27:06 per game, respectively. With defensive depth players including Francois Beauchemin and Aaron Rome, Carlyle had the personnel on the back end to employ his strategy with great success. His forwards in Anaheim, namely Ryan Getzlaf, Dustin Penner and Corey Perry, were all-star, two-way, power forwards who showed grit and determination in the defensive zone. His powerful depth on the front-end enabled Carlyle to collapse his forwards, whereby they would, more often than not, recover the puck and counter-attack with great speed. In his first two seasons in Anaheim, Carlyle was gifted with a player personnel tailor-made for his 200-foot strategy. Things are much, much different this year in Toronto.
This offseason saw Leafs staple players Mikhail Grabovski, Clarke MacArthur and Leo Komarov leave the team for various reasons. They were replaced by David Bolland, the two-way Toronto boy with two Stanley Cup rings from his time in Chicago, and David Clarkson, also a Toronto boy who, in only one NHL season, has exceeded 40 points. Where last year, Toronto’s third, shut-down line had the speed, grit and possession skills to chase the puck down in the defensive zone and transition quickly to the rush, they no longer do. Mason Raymond has speed, but he is far from a good possession player and even further from a gritty, third-line type player. His work in the defensive zone is unremarkable, at best. With Bolland’s potentially season-ending injury, Jay McClemment is filling the third line centre role. A career 0.3 points-per-game player, he produced less than half of the offense that Mikhail Grabovski does on any given night. He is also not known for his grit, where Mikhail Grabovski is. Grabo’s grit was never more prominent than in the playoff series against Boston, when he threw the body too many times count. Nonis and Burke chose to design the forward group in a top-nine, bottom-three fashion. Carlyle, however, deploys the forward group in top-six, bottom-six form. Where the speed and grit of the third line last season put immense pressure on puck carriers and forced turnovers, often leading to odd-man rushes, the third line this year is much slower and much less gritty. They are, as such, much less successful in the role than Carlyle has them playing, and much more prone to taking penalties.
And where has the fourth line disappeared to, you ask? Where last year, Carlyle deployed an energy line with Jay McClemment flanked by Colton Orr and Leo Komarov- arguably the most impactful pest the Leafs have had in years- he has insisted this year on icing AHL offensive centres and flanking them with two fighters. Although the Leafs are on pace for eight fewer fights over an 82 game span than they were last year, Carlyle’s stubbornness is unwavering. Frazer McLaren and Colton Orr have played 4:37 and 6:14 per game, respectively. They have zero points, and sit at a minus-three mark, combined. They are essentially useless in the defensive zone and completely incapable of offense. The offensive centres in between them often look out of place and misused. With the team fighting less, one of the fighters is taking a roster spot that could more usefully be filled by an impact player, like a Carter Ashton. But it is not. And it likely will not be.
Randy Carlyle’s Toronto Maple Leafs have nowhere near the defensive depth, nor the stay-at-home tendencies, that defined his Stanley Cup winning Anaheim team. Rather the Leafs have two slower, third-pairing defensemen who have made glaring mistakes in almost every game this season, many goal-causing. One of the stay-at-homers, Mark Fraser, is recovering from a summer knee injury, and has yet to return to his 2012-2013 form. The other, Paul Ranger, has missed four years of pro hockey for personal reasons and is having difficulty adapting to the speed of the NHL game. Even in sheltered, third-pairing minutes, the two big, strong defenders look out of place. Regardless, Carlyle continues to play them over his young, puck moving defensemen, in Jake Gardiner and Morgan Reilly, as his collapsing zone strategy proved not to work in Anaheim after the transition to a more mobile defense core. The failures on defense are compounded with the regression of Gardiner and the right-handed Cody Franson who, this year, is defending against a stronger talent level on the Leafs’ second pairing.
After Toronto’s last game against the Nashville Predators, a 4-0 loss, Nashville head coach Barry Trotz called Toronto a "rush team", much to the chagrin of Randy Carlyle. What Carlyle has yet to realize is that Toronto’s strengths are in its rush game, and although it was more evident last year, it stands true today. They are not a team built to play in Carlyle’s collapsing, dump and chase system. They are a counter-attack team with lethal winger depth and two-way centres for balance. If the Leafs want to experience success in the season and contend for the cup, changes have to be made. Whether it would be easier to make those changes in player personnel, or in coaching style, we cannot be sure. What we can be sure of is that something has to change, and fast. Trotz was not trying to incite a reaction out of Randy Carlyle, he was merely calling a spade, a spade.