Randy Carlyle is a man on an island.
The man who hired him, Brian Burke, is long gone. The management team that opted to retain has been cut to the bone, with senior figures Dave Poulin and Claude Loiselle ousted. General manager Dave Nonis may be next; even if he isn’t he’s clearly seen his power and status within the organization reduced in favour of team president Brendan Shanahan.
Further, Nonis is at best an uncertain ally. Even before the front-office purge, the Leafs had decided to take a knife to the coaching staff. Scott Gordon and Greg Cronin, who had spent most of the last three years with Carlyle, were both dismissed. So too was Dave Farrish, who has been coaching at Carlyle’s side for nearly a decade and had been a teammate of his back in junior.
It doesn’t take much reading between the lines to know that Carlyle is coaching on borrowed time. The Canadian Press (via TSN) reported that he got a two-year extension on the same day as his assistants were cut, but that extension won’t mean anything if Carlyle can’t get results from the team early. If he gets results, he stays; if he doesn’t, he doesn’t.
The question is whether Carlyle is capable of delivering.
At the root of the Leafs’ problems last season was their puck-possession game. With the score close, Toronto had just 41.7 percent of unblocked shot attempts in their games last year—meaning that on a consistent basis they were being outshot by a roughly three-to-two margin. That’s the imbalance that Carlyle needs to find a way to fix; if he can, Toronto has strong goaltending and decent shooters and they should take care of the rest.
Carlyle’s theory is that the Leafs are too much of a run-and-gun team, and need to do a better job of maintaining possession in the offensive zone, playing more of a cycle game.
“We always felt we needed to change our puck possession, specifically in the offensive zone, not be a one-and-out team and not be considered a rush team, but try to create more of a cycle game, grind teams down to play with the puck more,” Carlyle told NHL.com. “We weren't able to do that.”
There are two obvious obstacles in the path between Carlyle and success. The first is that by his own admission he wasn’t able to get the team playing the way he wanted in the offensive zone, and if he couldn’t do it in 2013-14, there isn’t much reason to think he can make it happen in 2014-15.
The other obstacle is that Carlyle’s diagnosis treats only part of the problem. Even teams with a strong reputation for playing a cycle game, like the Los Angeles Kings, generate most of their offence off the rush. Those shifts where one team pens the other in the zone for a minute or more at a time are a rarity; hockey is a back-and-forth game which as a rule sees both teams enter and exit the zone quickly. Tyler Dellow, in comparing the Kings and the Leafs found only small differences between the two clubs in terms of how long they spent in the offensive zone; unfortunately his data disappeared from the internet when he was hired to consult with the Edmonton Oilers.
The truth is that for all their run-and-gun reputation, Toronto is actually more of a dump-and-chase team. Through the first half of last year (which is the period we have data for, courtesy of Corey Sznajder and Pension Plan Puppets) the Leafs entered the zone with possession less than 48 percent of the time, meaning that more than half of their entries involved dumping the puck in and then trying to get it back. If the club is really looking to establish the cycle in the offensive zone, it would help if they didn’t first need to retrieve the puck.
Some of the problem is personnel. Most of the team’s top six carried the puck into the zone, but pretty much anyone on the bottom two lines opted to dump the puck in and forecheck. David Clarkson had just a 40 percent carry rate, while Frazer McLaren carried the puck in less than one time in 10.
But some of the problem is also coaching. Carlyle is a notoriously conservative coach, and the conventional wisdom holds that playing dump-and-chase is safe, responsible way to play the game. In their landmark paper on zone entries (warning: PDF), however, Eric Tulsky et al. demonstrated that conventional wisdom has it wrong:
It is also important to evaluate the defensive aspect of the entry decision. It is clear that successfully carrying the puck in leads to substantially more offense, but how many unsuccessful attempts are there and how costly are they? … Contrary to popular understanding about the importance of making a team go the full length of the ice, failed attempts to carry the puck into the zone actually lead to fewer shots against than dump-and-chase plays and have a better average outcome than dumping the puck and going for a line change.
The Leafs added front-office personnel in the offseason who understand this concept. The question remains whether the coach will be willing to buy in.
Carlyle has been granted a little bit of time here, and with that time comes an opportunity. The team spent way too many minutes on players who couldn’t possibly have a positive impact last year; he has the power to substitute real NHL’ers for those guys. Too often, the club opted to dump the puck in rather than retain possession on entry; Carlyle has the power to change that, too. If he uses that power, he just might turn the team around.
Alternatively, Carlyle can double down on what he’s already done in Toronto. He can demand the team take the perceived low-risk play every time, dumping the puck in unless there’s an abundantly clear opportunity. He can dress toughness over ability and stress the value of getting hits on the forecheck over the value of carrying the puck in and generating scoring chances. If he sticks to the latter, there isn't much hope for him or his team.
The status quo at a higher volume simply isn’t good enough. Carlyle will either evolve as a coach or he’ll be evicted from the position.
Jonathan Willis covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter for more of his work.