Michael Musalem is a contributor to Hockey Prospectus. He also interned and has written for The Hockey News
In hindsight, this probably took a little too long. But for now a fan base that frankly, has had enough, gets something tangible to extract real hope from.
The Toronto Maple Leafs fired head coach Randy Carlyle Tuesday morning, and the club announced that assistant coaches, Peter Horachek and Steve Spott, will form a tandem behind the bench for the time being. Without any suggestion as to how the Leafs on-ice product will improve this season, it’s a very good decision.
The Leafs were flat out bad under Carlyle, as the last two seasons saw them finish dead last league-wide in corsi for percentage, an essential stat in determining overall quality of play. And despite some quality talent on the roster, even when they were victorious, the team just never looked good.
Questionable moves were made by management to cater to the one-time Norris trophy winner over his time in the Big Smoke. The summer of 2013 saw the complete dismantling of arguably the most productive second line in the NHL, including the buyout of center Mikhail Grabovski, with the sole purpose of clearing cap space to bring in noted “character guys” David Clarkson and Dave Bolland. And last year, while Carlyle insisted that 4th-line face-punchers were an integral component of the formula for a successful hockey team, the Maple Leafs plunged directly into another second half meltdown, including a stretch of 14 losses in 20 games.
Enter Sandman, err, Shanahan.
The tide began to turn last summer, and it was clear that even with the team giving their coach a contract extension, they were no longer willing to coddle him and allow his influence over managerial decisions. Smart, subtle moves were made. Cheap, quality depth players were brought in. It became clear that the process was changing, and for the better.
As many could have predicted, even with the changes to the lineup, more of the same was seen on the ice. The Leafs continued to get brutally outshot consistently; scraping out wins early in the season on the merits of some good shooting and strong goaltending. A strategy (if you can call it that) that felt quite stale to Leaf fans was beginning to result in another very familiar, very bleak sight.
A 5-1 loss to the Winnipeg Jets this past Saturday, in which the team was embarrassingly outplayed, could very well have been the straw that broke the Carlyle’s back. For some reason, that game seemed more indicative than any. The Jets walked all over the Leafs. In the past, opportunistic shooting would bail them out in the score line, at least to some extent, but this night was different. This night the Leafs were at the bottom of a well, crying for help, and absolutely no one was coming to fetch them.
It would be unfair to ask the replacements, Horachek and Spott, to salvage this season. The team still has some glaring holes on the roster, there are a few injuries to integral players, and they return home Wedensday from their longest road trip of the season only to embark on an even more daunting one next week.
The goal should be to finally evaluate their players fairly. No one believes this roster is as bad as it played under Carlyle, and management needs to get a grasp of what guys are capable of under competent coaching.
The trade deadline looms (March 2nd), and it’s going to be interesting to see how this new, progressive management team handles its’ assets until then, and over the course of the summer.