Leafs send wrong message with Carlyle extension

May 8, 2014, 7:37 PM

It was described as both a positive day and an awful day.

Dave Nonis attempted to clear the names of the three assistant coaches that he had just sent to the unemployment line as the Toronto Maple Leafs delivered a quarter-pound of flesh for a 2-12-0 collapse to end the season. It was not their fault, said the general manager. This was not on head coach Randy Carlyle either.

Carlyle was rewarded with a two-year contract extension – keeping him on the payroll through 2016-17 – and a predictable tidal wave of outrage crashed over Twitter on Thursday afternoon. Nonis knew that there would be noise, but he wasn’t likely to hear it while camped out in Las Vegas for organizational meetings.

Plus, he claimed not to be the least bit concerned about how this would look.

“First of all, if you’re worried about optics in this market then it’s going to be a disaster,” Nonis said on a hastily thrown-together conference call.

And to a certain extent he was correct. What I write in this column or what fans that pay the NHL’s highest ticket prices say on social media doesn’t matter one bit if the Leafs return in the fall and play good hockey.

But why give Carlyle the contract extension now? The only possible explanation is that you’re concerned about optics. Nonis said that he and new team president Brendan Shanahan wanted to ensure that Carlyle has the “support needed” to perform his duties.

While that seems to be a commonly held tenet in professional sports, it doesn’t really bear out in reality. Remember that Carlyle was given a three-year contract extension by the Anaheim Ducks in August 2011 and fired three months later. History could repeat itself here, especially if the Leafs continue to be a defensive disaster; Carlyle, Nonis, Shanahan, the players, the media, the fans and the beer vendors all know it.

The man is really no more secure in his job today than he was yesterday. He’s just guaranteed to receive more money when the time comes for him to move on.

About the only message this truly sends is that the Leafs organization is willing to reward mediocrity. The decision to let Carlyle finish out his contract next season is understandable, especially given the paucity of top-flight candidates to replace him, but after two straight catastrophic finishes it hardly seems like the time to take a trip to Vegas and double down.

This is an organization that needs direction, as MLSE boss Tim Leiweke repeatedly reminded everyone when Shanahan was hired on April 14. Nonis might not be concerned about optics but the supporters of this team are desperately waiting to see where things are headed. And in the first move of the Shanahan Era, everyone got a round of mixed messaging.

Carlyle had a sense that changes were coming after meeting with Shanahan shortly after the season ended. He warned assistants Greg Cronin, Scott Gordon and Dave Farrish that their jobs weren’t safe. Then he endured a “trying” month of meetings and reviews before finally being told that he would stay and they would go.

The assistants were turned into scapegoats.

Cronin and Gordon had been holdovers from Ron Wilson’s staff while Farrish followed Carlyle around like a shadow. They played together with the Sudbury Wolves in the 1970s and had been part of the same coaching staff since 2005. This was not a decision the veteran head coach welcomed.

“It’s a tough day,” said Carlyle. “The game of hockey is a great game, but the business side of hockey is an awful one. And this is an awful day in our life, for the relationship between Dave Farrish and myself.”

The new staff will be hired by committee. Shanahan, Nonis and Carlyle all get a say. Their most important task will be establishing a more structured defensive system with a collection of players that had a playoff spot firmly in hand through 68 games this season and then promptly fell to pieces.

There will be some personnel changes, for sure, but it was telling that Nonis labelled this the “most significant” decision in getting the Leafs back on track. In the salary cap world, the GM knows that it is difficult to dramatically overhaul a team in just one summer.

Plus it is clear that he still believes in the group after seeing them stretch the Boston Bruins to seven games following the 48-game 2013 season. The team’s play during that lockout-shortened year is one of the main reasons he’s comfortable with Carlyle. That was the evidence he cited when saying he knew that this coach could get more from these players.

Nowhere to be found was any real explanation for why the Leafs turned into the second-worst puck possession team in the NHL this season – one that allowed 35.9 shots against per game. Carlyle used the word “mind-boggling” on more than one occasion.

It has been a stressful few months for the embattled head coach. He’ll need to clear his head this summer and come back with a fresh outlook.

“This is a guy that we believe can get the job done for us,” said Nonis. “Whether the optics are that (giving him a contract extension) is the wrong thing to do doesn’t really matter to us. Again, if you’re looking at trying to please people you’re probably going to make some pretty poor decisions.”

And with that, a strange season for the organization was officially put to rest. Listening to the conference call from the bowels of the Bell Centre, inside the same room where Phil Kessel’s $64-million contract extension was announced back in October, it was hard not to feel like a case of the bends had just come on.

This much I know for sure: There will be a playoff game in Montreal tonight.

In Toronto? Only confusion.

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