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Leafs' Focus on Optics Betrays Message of Accountability

The Toronto Maple Leafs' front office managed to avoid accountability altogether. They claim it's because they won't bow to "optics," but in reality it's almost all they were thinking about.

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"I told them we'd hold people accountable!"
"I told them we'd hold people accountable!"
Bruce Bennett

Remember when Leiweke arrived last year and started talking immediately about accountability? Remember in April when it suddenly became a buzzword again? Have no fear, because like every "culture change" before this one, Leiweke's words were empty promises and ticket-selling platitudes. It's all but confirmed by Elliotte Friedman's recent blog post, which frames the Leafs' retention of Carlyle as an issue of timing and perception. In yesterday's press conference, Nonis said "If you're worried about optics in this market, it's going to be a disaster." Dave was talking about not caving in to popular demands, but it's clear that "optics" still had a big influence in protecting the front office.

After all this discussion of accountability and an admittedly failed season, it turns out that it's perfectly acceptable for the Leafs' front office to say that no one was to blame. They retain the general manager, extend the head coach, and fire the assistant coaches without attributing it to their performance. And Carlyle's big punishment is that he doesn't get sole approval on the team's roster moves? Great, now we can hope that the front office picks assistant coaches who happen to challenge existing (failing) strategies to challenge and change "their guy." Sorry, but "erosion in power" just doesn't cut it - especially when Nonis tacks on a couple extra years of walking around money just in case.

In the same press conference, Nonis later admitted that part of retaining Carlyle was sending a message to the players, so that they knew change wasn't coming and they would play their hardest for the coach. I'm not sure how delusional someone needs to be before they suggest that a coach's contract status is the difference between success and failure in the NHL, but it sounds a lot like "optics" to me. It sounds a lot like a disaster to me.

I think it should be clear here: "accountability" isn't about revenge. It's also not about penance, and it's not about caving to public demand. It's about the future. When you're the head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs, why shouldn't you have to justify your position every season (let alone every contract)? And Carlyle simply can't. Has anyone even seen a well-founded defense of Carlyle over the past few months? People point to his cup ring, ignoring that Anaheim fired him despite it. People point to his leadership, ignoring that even Nonis thinks players stopped working for him. It's not in the statistics, it's not in the results, and no one has highlighted which of his tactics or contributions might be making the Leafs better. How many fewer points do you expect the Leafs would've had in 2013-14 with a coach other than Randy Carlyle? It's a shame that none of the reporters asked what kind of "analysis" the front office did to decide that Carlyle was worth keeping around, because it sure feels like their analysis was entirely wrapped around career planning - you only get so many coaching hires, after all. Why would Shanahan want to burn one now?

And what's the real cost of letting Carlyle go? It's difficult to see how "instability" could hurt the Leafs more than Randy Carlyle hurts the Leafs. As Friedman pointed out, good organizations don't have three coaches in three years, but it's simply because good organizations find and retain good coaches. Good organizations evaluate team members on their own merits and address problems, rather than covering their ears and shouting loudly until the problems go away, which seems to be the Maple Leafs' plan for both the Carlyle concerns and the cup drought.

And let's be honest: considering they have just three playoff wins in a decade, no one should confuse the Leafs with a good organization. At best, this is an attempt to replicate results without considering the process. At worst, it's leveraging the "optics" of stability to preserve employment; you only get so many coaching hires, so why not postpone a firing to keep the eyes on your fall-guy for another year? It's a transparent attempt to buy the Leafs' front office extra time without being held accountable for the team's shortcomings.

In truth, the Leafs are in an excellent position to remove Carlyle, and instead hire a high-risk, high-reward coach who's earned a shot. A new tactician almost can't be worse than Carlyle has been for the team, as I'm completely willing to bet that the "devil they know" is worse than the devil they don't in this case. If the new bench boss doesn't pan out, you can safely roll the dice on a reputable, safe coach hitting the market next year. And if it does pan you, you've got your head coach - and maybe it would even help the Leafs get over this morbid fascination with historic résumés over current processes. While working relationships are everything in hockey, it's probably a bad sign if the Leafs are willing to value pre-existing relationships over saving a season when it means doing the work of finding a new head coach.

There has been at least one culture change, I guess: six years ago, I was told that Leafs fans weren't patient enough to perform poorly and acquire cheap young talented assets through the draft. Now fans are being told that we're capable of being patient in the hopes that Shanahan can get his coach. I say "in the hopes," because we've chased the White Whale of a free agent before, and the Sedin twins never even hit free agency. How hard is it to imagine that Babcock or McClellan have successful seasons, and decide not to surprise everyone with their resignation? How hard is it to imagine that Toronto's bags of money are just being used as leverage for a new contract negotiation?

And how crazy is it that the Leafs are extending Carlyle with an eye to hiring a new coach next season? Isn't there an implicit assumption that Carlyle won't be able to put up even a defensible season? "Toronto Maple Leafs retain Carlyle because they expect to hire a new coach next offseason, since firing Randy will be so easy after he whiffs yet again." Dreger's already talking about the opt-out built into his contract and about Carlyle's "short leash;" all of this feels like the organization is burning a year of talented players' contracts just to avoid three coaches in three years. Just to avoid the optics of instability.

As weird as it sounds, I don't think I'll get much pleasure out of Carlyle losing his job in the long term. It's another failed coaching tenure in a long line - an extension in the Leafs' wikipedia entry that could be captioned "coaches who weren't the solution." Sure it'll be refreshing at first, but the real issue is that the Leafs' front office made another indefensible move for self-interested, non-hockey reasons. The truth is, I don't want Carlyle's head on a spit - I just want a competitive hockey team.