Johnston on Leafs: Carlyle’s ongoing evolution

Toronto Maple Leafs coach Randy Carlyle. (Chris Young/CP)

TORONTO — These are the days when the new Randy Carlyle has to work especially hard to keep the old Randy Carlyle from coming out.

Even then he’s not always successful.

With the Toronto Maple Leafs mired in a five-game winless slide and facing a rare gap in the schedule, Carlyle put his players through an extended up-tempo practice on Monday that featured plenty of skating and a little bit of tough love.

Upset with the way a drill was being conducted, Carlyle called everyone over at one point and gave them a pretty good tongue-lashing. To punctuate the point even further, he threw a pen in frustration.

“At times I can get that way,” Carlyle said after practice. “It’s better served when you do it within the confines of privacy, if that is what you choose, but sometimes it just happens. We’re only human and if things aren’t going the way you’d like them to go at times that’s part of your personality.

“They have to know that.”

Perhaps the most notable part of the exchange is how infrequent that kind of thing has been seen during Carlyle’s year on the job in Toronto. Sure, he’s known to bark at his players from time to time, but his reputation as an all-around prickly character hasn’t followed him to the Air Canada Centre.

And that’s by design.

Borrowing a page from Ken Hitchcock, who made a conscious effort to start bringing a positive attitude to the rink every day after getting hired by St. Louis last season, Carlyle has tried to take a different approach to his job with the Maple Leafs.

“I think if you quit evolving then you get cast away or you’re put by the wayside,” he explained earlier this season. “I think you’ve got to learn from all of the experiences that you’ve had. …

“I think I’m a much calmer individual now.”

That mindset is currently being put to the test, moreso than at any previous time during his tenure here.

The winless skid has dropped the team closer to the playoff cutoff in the Eastern Conference and brought even more scrutiny to Carlyle’s decisions. The most recent mini-debate to erupt in Leaf Nation surrounded Mikhail Grabovski, who was left on the bench during a 10-round shootout with Winnipeg on Saturday night.

For his part, Carlyle said Monday that the centre would have been picked to go in Round 11 had it gotten that far.

Of more importance is finding a way to get Grabovski back to being a legitimate secondary scoring threat. He and the coach have had some conversations about that topic recently and Carlyle made it clear he’d like to see Grabovski start by focusing on some smaller details in his game.

“He told me I need to fix faceoffs so I fixed faceoffs,” said Grabovski. “The next step? I wait for that step.”

One thing that all of the players have learned to count on from Carlyle is an honest assessment of where they stand. The coach isn’t one to sugar-coat his message.

And just to be sure that everything is clear, Carlyle and members of his coaching staff recently held a series of 1-on-1 meetings with the players to keep the lines of communication open.

“I just found that if you’re honest and you can be straightforward that usually you have a better response … (than) when you’re beating around the bush,” said Carlyle. “I don’t think that really works in today’s sports.

“I think there’s times that you’ve got to be a lot softer then maybe I would have been before.”

His patience has been particularly notable with 22-year-old centre Nazem Kadri, who is tied with Phil Kessel for the team lead in scoring at 27 points.

Rather than constantly harp on Kadri’s defensive shortcomings as predecessor Ron Wilson did, Carlyle has kept the conversation around the young forward positive by noting his skill in virtually every interview.

That has gone a long way to building trust with Kadri, who shrugged off Carlyle’s outburst at practice on Monday.

“I think we messed up the drill a couple times and didn’t really execute to our full potential,” said Kadri. “But the important thing is we regrouped and ended up figuring it out.”

The work will continue. Practice days are remarkably scarce during the shortened season and the Leafs will get another one before hosting the Tampa Bay Lightning on Wednesday night.

It promises to give Carlyle a chance to further implement his vision for the team.

“You’re always trying to develop a template inside your room and it’s not any different than if you’re running a company that has 25 employees,” he said. “You’re accountable to what you do on a day-to-day basis, you’re accountable to the bottom line if the company’s going to be productive or non-productive. Everybody has to share in that responsibility.

“It’s a big word and it’s easy to say, but it’s real hard to live. And sometimes it’s not very nice.”

When Carlyle was fired by the Anaheim Ducks in December 2011, it gave him an opportunity to reflect on the kind of coach he’d been. What he found during that time were some traits that needed changing — although he won’t offer up much more detail than that.

“There’s a list,” said Carlyle. “A long one. I don’t want to give you all my negatives.”

One month out from his 57th birthday, Carlyle remains a work in progress. Just like the team he is coaching.

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