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Analysis: Next Maple Leafs coach needs team to adapt

by Dan Rosen /

Former Toronto Maple Leafs coach Randy Carlyle bought into the modern puck possession-based statistics because he knew his team wasn't playing the right way and because the organization was making a big push to incorporate more analytics.

Need proof? Here is what Carlyle said before this season about Toronto's collapse last season:

"We always felt we needed to change our puck possession, specifically in the offensive zone, not be a one-and-out team and not be considered a rush team, but try to create more of a cycle game, grind teams down to play with the puck more," Carlyle said. "We weren't able to do that."

So yes, Carlyle knew the Maple Leafs were a bad puck possession team last season and how that needed to change this season. He knew the Maple Leafs hired assistant general manager Kyle Dubas in part to provide statistical proof that the team was not playing a winning brand of hockey.

Dubas said prior to this season that Carlyle, along with president Brendan Shanahan and general manager Dave Nonis, have been the most curious people in the organization about analytics, constantly asking questions about the stats, what they measure and what they represent.

Knowing and doing are two different things. Carlyle's problem is he couldn't get the players to change, to buy in to playing a more demanding brand of hockey that typically leads to sustained success. He was fired Tuesday because of it.

The bigger question for Shanahan and Nonis is, can anybody get the Maple Leafs players to buy in, to change and adapt?

Conventional wisdom would suggest, like the executives in the organization and their coach, the Maple Leafs players would be hell-bent on listening, adapting and changing after the way they collapsed last season. Nothing has changed. They are on the same path now as they traveled last season.

Last season, Toronto was last in the NHL in shots against per game (35.9), even-strength shots allowed (2,281), even-strength Corsi-for percentage (42.8 percent) and even-strength Fenwick-for percentage (42.2 percent). Those numbers were a clear indicator of the potential for a major slump, and it came at the worst time as they went 2-12-0 to close the season and drop out of the Stanley Cup Playoff picture.

This season, only the Buffalo Sabres stand between the Maple Leafs and being last in the NHL in all the same categories. They are 29th in shots against per game (34.4), even-strength shots allowed (1,057 through 40 games), even-strength FF% (45.1 percent) and 28th in even-strength CF% (44.6 percent).

Notice those numbers in all categories are ever-so slightly better through 40 games this season than they were in 82 games last season, but Toronto's puck-possession numbers were inflated early in the season by a few outlier performances against the Sabres and another poor possession team, the Colorado Avalanche. Their profile suggests yet another potential collapse on the horizon. It might be here already.

The Maple Leafs are 2-7-0 in their past nine games after going 10-1-1 in their previous 12. They went 15-4-3 in the 22 games before they fell apart last season.

That, more than any other reason, is why the Maple Leafs fired Carlyle in spite of the fact they are currently in a playoff position. This is as much about the coach as it is about the concerning pattern.

"We felt we weren't going in the right direction and we are trending the wrong way right now," Nonis said. "We are still in a decent position. This move was made to try to put ourselves in a better position, nothing more than that."

There could be more moves coming.

"People think players are set in stone," Nonis said. "I've said before, players are moveable. If there is a player move that makes us better, than we will look to do it."

But the Maple Leafs core doesn't appear to be changing, not with Dion Phaneuf, Phil Kessel, Joffrey Lupul, David Clarkson, James van Riemsdyk, Tyler Bozak and Jake Gardiner all signed and between $4 and $8 million against the salary cap through the 2017-18 season.

Instead of attempting a radical overhaul that likely is impossible anyway, Shanahan and Nonis need to use the time they have in order to take stock in all the potential replacements for Carlyle. It's too hard in the cap world to change the culture by changing the players, so Toronto needs to change the culture with the new coach.

And it doesn't make a lot of sense to move quickly and hire one of the many quality available candidates such as Dan Bylsma, Paul MacLean and Peter DeBoer. There could be more coming.

Maybe Mike Babcock will be available if he makes himself a free agent after the season and decides the grass might be greener away from Detroit. Maybe he will want to accept the challenge of coaching the Maple Leafs and getting this group of players to change.

Maybe Todd McLellan will become available if his time in San Jose draws to a close, as many have speculated is a possibility if the Sharks lose early in the playoffs or fail to make it altogether. Maybe he'll want a crack at fixing the Maple Leafs.

Toronto has 42 games left in this season and it's far from lost, but the Maple Leafs are not built to contend for the Stanley Cup now. They have offered no proof to the contrary. So biding time, conducting an appropriate coaching search and waiting to learn of all the candidates feels like the appropriate course of action.

If in the process, the Maple Leafs buck their trend and avoid a collapse with Peter Horachek as an interim coach aided by Steve Spott, great, celebrate it. If they fall apart, so be it. It wouldn't be the first time.

No matter what was said Tuesday, firing Carlyle now is a move made for next season and beyond. It's a move to try to change the culture from the coach's room out. That's the challenge Carlyle never could overcome, no matter how willing he was to change and adapt.


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