30 Thoughts: Who will coach Maple Leafs next?

With Randy Carlyle out, do the Maple Leafs make roster moves next? And who will their new leader be? (Chris Young/CP)

We all knew this was not going to be a successful marriage. Once Randy Carlyle saw new nameplates on the assistant coaches’ cubbies, it was only a matter of time. The contract extension was never a major hurdle. Trying another year to see if things could work was better than changing a coach, and then changing again if someone better came along in the summer of 2015.

“We’re trending in the wrong direction,” Dave Nonis said Tuesday morning, one hour after a tweet announced Carlyle’s dismissal. The GM said Friday night’s loss in Minnesota was not a factor in the decision, which was a surprise.

The Maple Leafs were determined to do things differently this year, with one of the changes being more equal distribution of ice-time among the forwards. The organization felt some of them — including Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk, who were also Olympians — faltered as the season went on. One of the reasons? An ineffective fourth line that rarely played.

With Peter Holland, Nazem Kadri and Joffrey Lupul newly injured and unable to face the Wild, Carlyle leaned upon Kessel, van Riemsdyk and Tyler Bozak by six minutes more than any other forward. Maybe it wouldn’t have been so unusual if it wasn’t a back-to-back, but the Maple Leafs had nothing the next night in Winnipeg.

Carlyle did what he felt he had to do to win, which is what a coach does. An organization’s job is to look at the bigger picture. They had less in common than Ann Coulter and Barack Obama.

Peter Horachek and Steve Spott share the bench now, and it’s unlikely we see a permanent solution until league-wide decisions are made after the season. The two new coaches made one slight adjustment at their first practice, asking their players to defend the slot better in the defensive zone.

Like Claude Julien prefers to, give up the outside and jam the middle? “Yes,” Jonathan Bernier replied.

It’s interesting, because, last week, another NHL coach pointed to that location as Toronto’s main area of weakness. “They need players who have a mentality to defend. When you get a middle drive against them — with or without the puck — you can break down their defence. Several of their forwards cheat for goals, so you can exploit that.”

You can blame management, the coach or the players. (Or all three.) Whoever you choose, the fact is this is a team that has lacked a defensive identity for years. The coach quoted above says, for that reason, he understands why the Maple Leafs chased David Clarkson, Roman Polak, Stephane Robidas and Daniel Winnik, although it remains to be seen how much of that ends up working.

Firing the coach is the easy move, Nonis added, but this won’t be the only rinsing. He indicated last week the organization has done little to no negotiating with any of its potential free agents, restricted or unrestricted. That includes Bernier, Cody Franson, Kadri, Mike Santorelli and Winnik.

A player once said that whether you like your coach or not, you know that, if he gets fired, the spotlight shines on you. The Maple Leafs weren’t thrilled with their coach, obviously, but not sure they’re thrilled with the team, either.

30 THOUGHTS

1. So, who will be the long-term replacement? Everyone’s horny for “Bab-watch” again, but I lean to him staying in Detroit. Todd McLellan would intrigue them, if available. Peter DeBoer has lots of connections here, and Clarkson scored 45 goals for him in 128 games with the Devils. My bet is they talk to Dale Hunter, too. Brother Mark is in the organization now, and Dale is an excellent coach. But if he didn’t enjoy dealing with the media in Washington, can’t imagine he’d love us Toronto sloths. (He declined an interview request on Tuesday.) We’ll see what shakes down the rest of the season.

2. He may not be on Toronto’s radar, but I am curious to see what the Gold Medal victory does for Benoit Groulx. His previous pro experience was two years with the AHL’s Rochester Americans, and it was not a success. But, what does a person learn from that? His Gatineau team is having a rough year, but he’s won three Quebec championships in 10 seasons and word is his coaching at the World Juniors impressed some NHL execs. Could he be a mid-season replacement?

3. Sometime before the season, there was a conversation with the Maple Leafs’ various captains, joined by Bernier and some of the newer veterans — Polak, Robidas and Winnik among them. Winnik didn’t want to get too deep into it, but did say that one of the topics was how to properly handle a white-hot market. “We wanted everyone to understand how it goes, that they love you when you play well, but it changes when things go badly. Negative stuff sells more.” Wendel Clark used to tell new arrivals, “You’re never as good as they say you are, but you’re also never as bad as they say you are.” Among the suggestions, he said, were that if you were going to watch highlights/commentary or read columns, do it at the rink and not at home. The idea is that if upset by what is said, you have someone to talk to about it instead of stewing alone. Useful advice now, no doubt.

4. Nick Kypreos was the first to note increased chatter Sunday night that Boston was closing in on a deal with Arizona for Antoine Vermette. At the World Junior semifinals, execs from a few different NHL teams said they heard something similar. Via email, Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli put the kibosh on that one.

5. Chiarelli also tossed cold water on any Milan Lucic rumours. We did not go into deeper conversation, but I believe the Bruins are doing everything shy of hiring a shaman to find out why Lucic’s play has seemed less…inspired this season. At his best, Lucic is everything the Boston identity is supposed to be, a hard-edged, mean, but talented performer who can take over a game with a goal, a hit or a fight. He is very much the emotional centre of their group. Is it fatigue from long post-seasons, injuries from the toll of physical play, or just a slump enveloping the rest of the team as well?

6. I think at least one team has specifically asked about Lucic (can’t prove it, so no guessing). What that tells Boston is other teams still see him as a difference-maker. Chiarelli and the Bruins have the advantage of time. Lucic is still only 26 and has another year under contract. The GM told reporters the winger is “part of the backbone of this franchise” last September. They want to keep him. Any decision to part with Lucic would not come without the most careful consideration.

7. Charlie Jacobs, newly named CEO of his family’s Boston-area holdings, told reporters Tuesday it would be an “utter failure” if their Bruins missed the playoffs. His father, Jeremy, admitted to a long-rumoured story in an interview with George Stroumboulopoulos: that he and Charlie left before the team’s incredible 2013 Game 7 playoff comeback against Toronto, because they thought Boston was done. If the Bruins actually do miss the playoffs this season, instead of firing everyone, shouldn’t they just call it even?

8. It’s rare, but not unheard of, for the IIHF best goaltender, defenceman or forward at the World Juniors to be undrafted, as Slovakian Denis Godla (goalie) and Russian Vladislav Gavrikov (blueliner) were this time. Many of those who did were highly thought-of, but not yet eligible — like Rick DiPietro, Drew Doughty, Marc-Andre Fleury, Darius Kasparaitis, Kari Lehtonen, Eric Lindros, Al Montoya, Jamie Storr, John Tavares and the late Alexei Cherepanov. Since 1990, there are 20 such cases and half were goalies. Do you remember Pauli Jaks for Switzerland in 1991, Yevgeni Tarasov for Russia in 1995, or another Swiss, Benjamin Conz, in 2010?

9. Conz and Tarasov are the only ones who would never be drafted into the NHL. The others — Joe Corvo, Manny Legace, Sami Lepisto, Viktor Tikhonov and Czech goalie Tomas Duba — were eventually selected. Tikhonov was passed over twice before scoring five times in seven games during the 2008 event, which led to the Coyotes picking him in the first round that June. An unscientific poll of NHL execs indicated you can expect both Gavrikov and Godla to be taken later this year.

10. Darnell Nurse and partner Shea Theodore played approximately half of the final 8:20 for Team Canada, including the last 1:10, which included three defensive-zone faceoffs (two of them from icings). Nurse was excellent, with unanimous praise of his play. The excitement will be off the charts in Edmonton, although he cannot return this season (unless under emergency conditions). After the compliments, another question was asked: how will the internal audit affect the Oilers’ development of him? Will the organization go slower with Nurse after what’s happened with some of the other young players?

11. If you’re Winnipeg, you’re giddy about Josh Morrissey and Nic Petan. If you’re the Rangers and/or the Senators, you’re thrilled with how your loans of Anthony Duclair and Curtis Lazar worked out. But, if you’re the Coyotes and Sabres, you’ve got to be ecstatic with Max Domi and Sam Reinhart. In the last five minutes, there were two brief shifts where either the Domi/Duclair/Reinhart line or Lazar were not on the ice. (The captain was with Frederik Gauthier and either Lawson Crouse or Connor McDavid.) Domi was really hurt by his demotion to OHL London, but Arizona was determined not to make the same mistakes it did with Mikkel Boedker and Kyle Turris. Domi sucked it up, played very well for the Knights and, according to those in attendance, rose to a higher level in games against Canada’s toughest opponents — Finland, Russia and the United States.

12. As for Reinhart, his last 2:10 was impressive. Coach Benoit Groulx left him on with Gauthier and Lazar to take a strong-side defensive-zone faceoff, which he won. He was back on the ice at about 1:15, outracing the Russian defence to invalidate a potential icing, which would have been Canada’s second in a row and left a tired group out there. After an icing at 0:38, he won a defensive-zone draw on his weak side. He lost one with 8.1 seconds left, which led to Russia’s last great chance. Groulx then left him out there to win the last draw and seal the win.

13. McDavid wasn’t at the same level as Domi/Duclair/Lazar/Reinhart, but he impressed NHL eyes, especially as the tournament progressed. No one left with any doubts. Before the event, when rumours flew Jack Eichel would leave Boston University for QMJHL Saint John, Sea Dogs GM Darrell Young called those whispers unfair and unfounded. I’m not interested in cannonballing into the CHL vs NCAA debate, but I get the sense NHL teams wished Eichel did go. The USA’s quarterfinal loss left them wanting to see more of him on this type of stage. The Canada/USA round-robin game was, not surprisingly, a nasty affair, especially since no verbal slur gets lost to language. A few scouts felt Eichel looked like he was surprised by its intensity, which affected his play. Best compliment of him: One exec said, “Most players slow down when they skate with the puck. He seems to speed up.”

14. That same exec on Dylan Larkin: “Some guys just fit perfectly with the identity of the team that drafts them. Larkin fits perfectly with the way Detroit plays…fast, skilled, not physical but very competitive.” Felt terrible when the goal that eliminated the Americans went off his stick. Larkin played great and deserved better.

15. Another Canadian who did well for his draft position was Crouse. One team mentioned they would have liked to see him in more of an offensive role, but the winger showed he can have an impact. If there was disappointment, it was from wanting to see more out of those already drafted — Kasperi Kapanen (Finland/Pittsburgh), Mirco Mueller (Switzerland/San Jose) and Nick Ritchie (Canada/Anaheim).

16. Before Edmonton sent Leon Draisaitl back to the WHL, a European team reached out about sending him there, a la William Nylander and Toronto. It appears that club was Adler Mannheim of the German Elite League. Draisaitl has a history in the city and the team is coached by Geoff Ward, who won a Stanley Cup as a Boston assistant in 2011. Might have been a nice fit, but obviously didn’t happen.

17. Way, way off-the-radar free agent to look for: Massachusetts-born forward Steve Moses. Moses, who will be 26 in August, leads the KHL with 28 goals. He played at NCAA New Hampshire and was never drafted. His Wikipedia page (always 100 per cent accurate), lists him at 5-foot-8 and 172 pounds. Like any North American, he’d love another shot at the NHL. Hard to say how deep the interest is, but there is some.

18. Nick Foligno’s new extension includes a no-move clause to prevent against waivers for all six years. There is a no-trade for the first four, and partial protection for the final two.

19. He’s not Jim Rutherford’s Moby Dick, but the Penguins GM confirmed he did try to trade for David Perron in Carolina before St. Louis dealt him to Edmonton. Doesn’t sound like it really got far, but there was interest. Rutherford piloted this one, wanting to add a winger as Pittsburgh’s injuries mounted. Oilers fans desired one of the Penguins’ plethora of young defencemen, but that wasn’t happening. I would guess MacTavish contacted the other clubs who expressed interest and didn’t get a better offer. The big debate was probably, “Will we get more at the deadline?” Not sure many would have offered-up a first-rounder. Edmonton also saves $2 million.

20. Weird stat: Minnesota is tied with Tampa Bay for allowing the fewest shots a night, at 27. Despite that, the Wild are 22nd in goals-against per game, 2.84. That rarely happens. Since the NHL opened up offence after the 2004-05 lockout, no team finishing first in fewest shots has been anywhere near that low in goals against. Only one other (Edmonton in 2005-06) was even out of the top 10, placing 12th. Four clubs — Detroit (2007-08), Chicago (2009-10), New Jersey (2010-11) and St. Louis (2011-12) — were best in both. In talking about it last week, you could sense Minnesota GM Chuck Fletcher’s frustration, but he refused to say anything more biting than, “We need more saves.”

21. Fletcher said the organization has faith in Darcy Kuemper’s ceiling, pointing out that for a soon-to-be 25-year-old with four years of pro experience, the goalie hasn’t played a ton of games. This is the closest he’s been to a full-time starter, with just 100 appearances the previous three seasons. Niklas Backstrom’s health will be a big part of this, as Josh Harding’s return is off-track. Fletcher would not comment, but, according to a couple of sources, word is Minnesota is not counting on him to play again this year.

22. Fletcher and Buffalo GM Tim Murray are tight, but both denied there where any conversations about soon-to-be UFA Jhonas Enroth. I could see the logic, because he could help the Wild, but Fletcher is adamant there will be no costly short-term moves. Murray said there were no calls on either of his goalies, as Michal Neuvirth is also ticketed for freedom.

23. Jonathan Drouin, from Ste-Agathe-des-Monts, 100 km north of Montreal, plays in his home province for the first time as an NHLer Tuesday night. You can tell he’s bursting to play more, but GM Steve Yzerman is making it very clear this will be a patient organization. “He’s got a tremendous attitude…adjusting, not getting the most ice time, but working his way up there…He has to learn things he hasn’t had to do in junior, but it is just a matter of time. I’m not going to make a projection. All players have to be responsible for us. Whether it takes a week, a month, or a year, keep plugging.” Yzerman compared Drouin to one of Tampa’s breakthrough players, Nikita Kucherov, who also had to grind his way into the lineup. “When we drafted him, he said, ‘Tell me what I need to do to play in the NHL.’ Smart player, smart kid, driven. Worked very hard.”

24. Lightning coach Jon Cooper tried Kucherov, a left-hand shot, on the right side with Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat. Thus, “The Triplets” were born, three players who’ve combined for 112 points. The biggest revelation is the undrafted Johnson, entering Tuesday’s games tied for fourth in scoring with 43 points. Did Yzerman see this type of production? “When we signed him, (director of amateur scouting) Al Murray said he’s won and scored at every level…Would I have predicted this? No, but Al thought he had a good chance, because of his skating.”

25. Yzerman, asked if there were any Tampa weaknesses he’s worried about: “I prefer not to point them out to you.” You could see the smile, even on the phone. He’s optimistic and believes his young players are going in the right direction, but “we still have lots of work to do.”

26. Another coach on the Flyers: “In addition to everything else, Craig Berube is trying to change the style they’ve been used to playing.” Ron Hextall confirmed that is true. “We’re not trying to be safe, but we are trying to be responsible. Keep the third man high on offence…don’t always try long bombs out of our zone.”

27. It hasn’t been easy for Philadelphia, but one of the best moments was Scott Laughton scoring his first NHL goal while his parents were in town to see it live. “Mark Streit’s father was sitting next to my mother and told Mark she was tearing up,” Laughton said. The family went out for a nice dinner after the game. Who paid? “I tried to buy, but my father wouldn’t let me,” he laughed.

28. Meanwhile, Jakub Voracek had some great stuff on Claude Giroux and his own road roommate, Wayne Simmonds. He and Giroux faced each other in the 2008 QMJHL playoffs, Voracek in Halifax and Giroux for Gatineau. The Flyers captain had a ridiculous post-season, with 51 points in 19 games. “It was a joke,” Voracek said. “He was so good. They killed us.” Les Olympiques swept the Mooseheads in the semifinals. But it’s not over. “He brings it up all the time. I tell him it was seven years ago, but he won’t stop.”

29. As for Simmonds, the two get along great, deciding to stay together even though the new CBA allows each player his own room. (Comcast will love that, it saves the Flyers a few bucks.) “We both go to bed at the same time,” Voracek said. Then he told a hilarious story about how neither allows themselves to miss a game with an injury, because it would cede control of the remote to the other. Seniority determines who gets it, and they are both at 488. For his part, Simmonds told David Amber that Voracek is a huge prankster and the guys love him, but is a “total slob.”

30. Voracek, approaching 50 points, on his success: “When I was 16 years old in the Czech Republic, it seemed so far away. At 18, in my first (NHL) training camp, I could start to see it. Even two years ago, I thought, ‘I’ve got 20 per cent more to give.’ You can never be satisfied.”