While firing Randy Carlyle would have been completely justified given the failure this season, I'm happy Dave Nonis hasn't scapegoated Mr. Carlyle and thrown the failure on his lap. There is a lot of blame to go around, and this post is about who or what really is to blame for unsuccessful season.
Dave Bolland's Injury:
Acquiring Dave Bolland was one of the big moves made last off-season that eventually had the most impact in my opinion. Before his arrival, Carlyle turned Mikhail Grabovski into one of the best 2-way shutdown centers 2 seasons ago. While he may not have enjoyed that role, he played it well and most importantly listened to Carlyle. This was the foundation the entire forward group was built upon. It allowed Kadri's line to play against the 3rd and 4th opposition lines, which is where he's still most productive. Bringing in Bolland gave the team another player suited for Grabo's role, and while they would have liked to keep Grabo, the salary cap came down and other RFAs like Kadri, Bernier and Franson needed Grabo's cap space.
When Bolland went down, the foundation crumbled. Kadri was now being exposed to better opposition, and with only Jay McClement to kill penalties and attempt to shutdown opposition, the chemistry of this team had disappeared.
The team was already playing brutal defensively and Carlyle was one of the few people pointing that out on a daily basis. But because the team was winning, and the players are young and naive, they failed to change their game to make up for the loss of their best 2 way center. Dave Nonis also failed to bring in someone to replace Bolland. Sure, he didn't know how long the injury would take to heal, but when Tyler Bozak went down with an injury, who did Nonis finally bring in to help? Peter Holland. Not exactly a defensive force to be reckoned with. I know solid 2-way centers are hard to come by, and those that have them want to keep them, but there were other option for sure.
The Leafs were 10-5 before Bolland went down. His injury, and the lack of any similar replacement is the biggest reason for last season's failure.
Jonathan Bernier and James Reimer were absolutely lights-out for the first 3 months of the season. Both posting incredible .940 save percentages for long stretches. Then the numbers returned to reality for Reimer, and the mind games started, and we were down to one capable net minder. I think Reimer is an outstanding goalie that has a strong future in the NHL, if he gets control of the mental side of things. Kind of like calm, cool and collected Bernier, who was the other huge reason for Toronto's success and ultimate failure. There's no question his injury is directly linked to the 8 game slide that left the Leafs outside a playoff spot.
Had Carlyle maintained Reimer's confidence a little better, maybe the outcome would have been better, so he loses points there.
Another player who's injury had a much greater impact than most perceived. Carlyle had been playing with 7 defense men for almost 2 months before Ranger went down. He was doing this to protect a couple players on the back-end: Dion Phaneuf and Morgan Reilly. When Carlyle started utilizing 7 D, Phaneuf's play drastically improved as he wasn't being asked to play 25+ minutes. Ranger's play had also improved a lot by this time in the season so he was being effective on the PK and 5v5. Ranger went down in game 3 of the slide. Phaneuf never looked worse after that.
Who's to blame?
A lot has been said about Carlyle's inability to get this team to play a better team defense and a lot of it is correct. It would have been nice to see Kessel back-check all year the way he back-checked against Boston in the playoffs last year, but is that Carlyle's fault? He got Kessel to play defense when it mattered most, so did Kessel tune him out last season? Or was he lacking the will to work as hard in the regular season as he had in the playoffs?
Is Phaneuf the right player to be Captain of this team and earn/play a #1 Dman role? Is it Carlyle's fault that the answer is most definitely no?
Was bringing in Mason Raymond actually a positive in retrospect? Sure he put up some numbers, albeit inconstantly, for $1 million. But he took Dave Clarkson's spot on the #2 PP when Clarkson was suspended and forced Carlyle to play Clarkson on a depleted checking line all year. Raymond was not a good signing because the type of player we really needed was a 3rd line grinder; someone to replace Leo Komarov.
There is a lot of blame to go around for the Leafs' failure last season, but when you really think about it, very little falls in Carlyle's lap. Not being able to get his young players to understand they can't keep playing this way when they continue to win is one. And hurting Reimer's feelings is the other.
In my opinion, the failure last season lays squarely in Dave Nonis' lap for not building a team that could be successful should adversity strike. And when it inevitably did, Nonis didn't make the right moves to plug the right holes.
Hopefully Brendan Shanahan can be the guy to create a winning team template for Nonis to follow. Just because you can acquire Raymond for $1 million, or trade for Holland, doesn't mean you should.
Thanks for reading,
First-time poster, life-long Leaf fan,