Heat shifts to Maple Leafs roster, management

Dion Phaneuf impressed the Maple Leafs' brass this season.

Over to you, Dion. Step right up, Phil. Not so young anymore, Jake Gardiner? This is your time. And Joffrey Lupul too, if you can ever stay in the lineup.

And Brendan Shanahan, you of the Casper-the-Ghost style of leadership (you know he’s there; you can’t prove it), if you have any plans to take credit when things go well, it will be more meaningful if you are anywhere to be found when things are on the fritz.

So far, not so good.

As gatherings for the departed go, Tuesday morning’s announcement the Toronto Maple Leafs were parting ways with Randy Carlyle was remarkable only for the lack of a wet eye in the house.

Nothing against Carlyle, who arrived in Toronto with a Stanley Cup ring and a reputation of being prickly, and leaves Toronto with a Stanley Cup ring, a single, lamentable, playoff appearance, and a reputation for having a gruff charm, a subtle sense of humour and terrible Corsi.

It was the Corsi that got him in the end. The numbers have consistently not lied: With Carlyle on the bench for the past 188 games, the Leafs have spent as little time in possession of the puck as any other team in the NHL.

Which explains the lack of emotion Tuesday. Carlyle’s future in Toronto was bound to be brief; only the timing was in doubt. It was expected to be last summer, could have been at any point this year and, short of a run to the Eastern Conference final, would almost certainly have been shortly after the beginning of golf season this spring.

Even then he would have had a year remaining on his contract. There are worse fates than the one Carlyle suffered late Monday night when Leafs general manager Dave Nonis called and told him he’d made his last piece of toast as head coach.

If there were any tears shed, it should be by those remaining behind – the core of players who return year after year despite being demonstrably good only at being just shy of mediocre – and the upper levels of management, newer on the scene but as of yet having shown no clue on how to impact a franchise that has missed the playoffs eight of the last nine seasons while consistently spending almost every dollar possible in the effort.

For those who remain, the correct interpretation isn’t that they lost a coach but they just buried their most convenient excuse.

As long as Carlyle was on the job, it was possible to pin the Leafs' habit of being perpetually outshot on him. As long as he was around, Gardiner’s constant mental cramping could be somewhat attributable to him. Same as Phaneuf’s tin-eared leadership style, Kessel’s occasional back-checking and whatever else.

Carlyle was a human garbage can; the Leafs' problems could be conveniently dumped there.

In listening to Nonis, it was evident there is still a fervent belief that the roster as assembled is better than it has performed, despite all evidence to the contrary (a column by Sportsnet’s Stephen Burtch points out that the Leafs have been last in scoring chances against on a per-minute basis since Nov. 18, a period that includes the Leafs' 10-1-1 stretch that began Nov. 20.

"They’re able to [play the right way], we’ve seen it," said Nonis, even as the Leafs have just one regulation win in their past nine games. "I don’t think we have players that can’t do it. The game in Boston [a 4-3 shootout win] is a good example. They competed hard, they played the way we want them to play. They played that way in Minnesota [in a 3-1 loss].

"It’s not that they can’t do it. It’s that our consistency hasn’t been there. It’s probably – not probably – been trending downward for the last little while, where our consistency has been waning even more. You can chalk that up to players not listening if you’d like. It’s not that they’re not capable, because they are. That’s one of the reasons we did this today."

In fairness to Nonis, he has no choice other than to believe. The result of rewarding players with top-drawer contracts regardless of team results is a Leafs roster heavy with veteran players on long-term deals that make reconstructing a challenge.

But that’s the obvious next move.

"[Carlyle being fired] is a wake-up call," said Cody Franson, one of a handful of players who has blossomed under Carlyle, team results aside. "That happens, and if things can’t get figured out within our room here and we get back on the right track and be that consistent team we know we can be, the next step is players. There’s no way around that, and we know that in here. We feel we have a group that’s very capable, and we have to prove it if we want to stay together. That’s the task at hand here."

With Carlyle gone, Shanahan has fired his first bullet. Nonis, who has put his stamp on nearly every significant contract in the organization, is on his last leg – although that’s not all that new.

The analytics brigade now has its first scalp. And the roster of well-paid, long-tenured underachievers can’t moan Carlyle anymore, just like they no longer have Ron Wilson to blame for their woes.

As firings go, Carlye’s was bloodless and perfunctory. Everyone could see it coming, if they didn’t know exactly when.

But the truest words spoken came from Nonis.

"The coach is easy to let go," he said. "The coach is the easy change to make."

For the Leafs – players, management, ownership – the hard work remains yet to be done.