TORONTO — No single loss, no matter how embarrassing, tipped the scales. Some of the worst hockey actually came in victories, and the ugly trend was impossible to ignore.
Midway through a season of inconsistent play, the Toronto Maple Leafs fired Randy Carlyle, the old-school coach whose attempts to change his own style, and his team’s, came to an abrupt end. Losers of seven of nine, the Leafs still found themselves in a playoff spot, something that underscores just how uneven they’ve been through 40 games.
“It’s been too much of a roller coaster,” general manager Dave Nonis said Tuesday. “It’s not about one game or one stretch. We felt that we had to make that change today because of the direction this team is trending, that we need to move forward and try to get our team back to where it was when we were winning those games and do it on a consistent basis.”
Ultimately, inconsistency doomed Carlyle, a Stanley Cup-winning coach for the Anaheim Ducks in 2007 who led the Leafs to the playoffs in the lockout-shortened 2013 season, their only trip to the post-season in the past 10 years.
This year, Toronto endured back-to-back blowout losses to the Buffalo Sabres and Nashville Predators and flipped the switch to go 9-1-1 in its next 11 games.
Even in some of the wins, Carlyle knew the way his team was performing wouldn’t hold up. The Leafs are 21-16-3 with 45 points but haven’t looked like anything more than borderline playoff contenders.
Because of that, Nonis said management, which includes president Brendan Shanahan and assistant GM Kyle Dubas, had been discussing the possibility of firing Carlyle “for a while.” A 2-5-0 road trip was the final straw.
“I think we’d all agree we’ve had some good periods, good stretches, but I don’t think I can stand here front of you and say that we’ve been consistent,” Nonis said. “We just felt at this point this was the right time to make the change and move ahead and try to get this team back playing like we have played for periods this season.”
That responsibility now falls to Peter Horachek and Steve Spott, Toronto’s first-year assistant coaches who will be behind the bench for Wednesday night’s game against the Washington Capitals. Horachek ran the first practice of the post-Carlyle era, but the team has not given him or Spott an official title.
There’s also no clarity on how long Horachek and Spott will be in charge or if the Leafs intend to hire a full-time coach at some point this season. Several experienced ones are available, including Pete DeBoer, who was recently fired by the New Jersey Devils and has connections to Spott and winger David Clarkson.
Nonis said his focus was telling Carlyle of the decision Monday night, not on his long-term replacement.
“There’s a right way and a wrong way of doing it,” Nonis said. “We haven’t gotten that far yet. We’ll spend the next couple of days looking at our options.”
The Leafs returned home from their road trip over the weekend and practised outdoors Monday. Players came to the rink Tuesday morning and found out Carlyle was gone.
Understandably, players were surprised by at least the timing of the move. Winger Phil Kessel said he did not see this coming.
“I’ve been here a while now and we go through these ups and downs,” Kessel said. “We haven’t been playing well; it’s not his fault. He’s a great coach, he’s won a Cup and we didn’t get it done for him.”
Captain Dion Phaneuf said players are always surprised at a big shake-up like this. But he also gets why it happened.
“In our business when you have the swings that we’ve had – we haven’t been able to find consistency as a team — and when you have a stretch of games that we just went through, when you have lost seven of nine, there’s lots of questions being asked,” Phaneuf said. “As a team not being able to play well enough … Randy has lost his job because of that.”
It seemed that little had changed over the past 18 months. Cracks formed in the Leafs even during their run to the playoffs in 2013, and they contributed to a disastrous run last spring.
When the Leafs lost eight in a row in regulation and then 12 of the final 14 games to fall out of playoff contention, Carlyle’s job was in jeopardy. But Shanahan and Nonis opted to fire assistants Scott Gordon, Dave Farrish and Greg Cronin and even give Carlyle a contract extension.
Even with the benefit of hindsight, Nonis said keeping Carlyle was the correct decision.
“Randy deserved to come back,” Nonis said. “He had done enough to come back. We’ve seen him do good things. We saw him do some good things this season. It’s not that he’s not capable.”
The question now becomes what this group is capable of.
The Leafs are in the second wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference, and it’s late enough in the season to say they’re squarely in the playoff race even with their inconsistencies and flaws.
“We all have respect for Randy, but at the same time it’s time for us to turn things around,” goaltender Jonathan Bernier said. “It’s all about us right now.”
Bernier has proven capable covering up a lot of those flaws. And the ones he can’t are masked by the offensive firepower led by Kessel, Tyler Bozak, James van Riemsdyk, Joffrey Lupul, Nazem Kadri and Cody Franson.
Because of that talent, Nonis believes the Leafs are still in a decent position.
“This isn’t throwing in the towel,” Nonis said. “We feel that this team has a chance to do some good things, and today was the first step in trying to push our team back in that direction.”
Carlyle, a native of Sudbury, Ont., went 91-78-19 in 188 games as Leafs coach over parts of four seasons. He’s the fourth coach to be fired this season, following Paul MacLean of the Ottawa Senators, Dallas Eakins of the Edmonton Oilers and DeBoer.
Even in announcing Carlyle’s firing, Nonis called him an “excellent coach” who’s capable of winning.
“Good coaches get let go,” Nonis said. “He’s a good man, a good coach and he’ll be back in this game quickly.”
Notes – The Leafs on Tuesday put forward Carter Ashton on waivers. Ashton was suspended earlier in the season for violating the league and NHLPA’s performance-enhancing drug policy that he said came about after he used someone else’s inhaler. Ashton has zero points in seven games this season … Toronto Marlies forward Connor Brown was named to the AHL all-star roster. Brown has nine goals and nine assists in 35 games in his first professional season.