The Collapse: Reliving What Forced the Toronto Maple Leafs to Make a Serious Change
By: Aaron Greenfield
Exactly one year ago, on January 6, 2015, Randy Carlyle was relieved of his duties as coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs. At the time, the Leafs were 21-16-3 and still clinging to the final wild card spot in the East. However, management well Brendan Shanahan to be exact, had seen enough. Following an embarrassing lacklustre effort in a 5-1 drubbing against the Winnipeg Jets, the trigger was pulled and the Leafs were replaced with interim Head Coach Peter Horachek.
The Leafs appeared to be the team that defied analytics, where despite getting outshot night after night with Carlyle at the helm, the team still managed to find some success, taking the Bruins to seven games in the lockout shortened 2013 season and holding a playoff spot going into the new year in the ‘14-15 season. However the concerns from management was not from the team’s position in the standings, rather it was a lack of a consistent effort, poor play in the defensive zone and unsustainable play which lead to the change in coach.
One of the first signs of character issues that season arose in a Thursday night home game against the Tampa Bay Lightning. Following the 5-2 victory, there was a strange occurrence at centre ice following the team celebration where the Toronto players awkwardly skated off the ice without saluting the fans. Some speculated this was due to fans extensive booing during the previous game’s 9-2 loss to the Nashville Predators. Dion Phaneuf noted that snub was “nothing against our fans” and that the team was simply “changing up the routine”. While many fans didn’t really believe this excuse, they still continued to support the team, which was playing pretty well, aside from that loss to the Predators.
However, after losing four in a five-game stretch, followed by the eventual Carlyle firing, the mood went sour again in the dressing room. Things got heated between reporter Dave Feschuk and Phil Kessel when Feschuk asked the former Leaf winger if he thought he was a coachable player. Kessel stormed back asking if Feschuk was implying that the Carlyle firing was his fault. Here’s a video from CBC News of the altercation.
The question was out of line but did raise questions about Kessel’s work ethic. While nobody in the league could question his pure goal scoring ability, fans still didn’t like his lack of commitment to fitness and, to a lesser extent, on defence.
It’s hard to pin all of the Leafs struggles of the past year on Carlyle despite some fans’ attempts. Many people didn’t like his coaching style, but perhaps it was the best style for the players he had to work with. Kessel saw his best offensive outputs when playing the run-and-gun style. The decline of the team occurred when Horachek was brought in to clean up the mess.
Peter Horachek is not a bad coach. He instead suffered from the circumstances he put into. The Leafs played tighter defensively, averaging fewer shots against per game. Unfortunately, the goaltending and offense, which they lived and died by, didn’t bail them out in the second half. In the first 13 games under their new coach, Bernier’s save percentage dipped to .911 and Reimer’s dipped to .906. Phil Kessel’s scoring dried up to two goals and three assists in those 13 games. His linemates Bozak and Van Riemsdyk combined for 10 points while number-two centre Nazem Kadri only had four points.
The Leafs averaged 1.1 goals per game in that span and had an abnormally low shooting percentage of 3%. They also out-possessed their opponents in eight of their first 11 games meaning that with a bit better shooting percentage at least two or three of the one or two goal games they lost in could have resulted in reverse fortunes. Nevertheless, it didn’t work out that way and fans got visibly frustrated to the point where some went so far as to throw their jersey on the ice, a sign they had reached the boiling point and had completely given up on this franchise. The icing on the cake of the disastrous season was when the team suspended Kadri for arriving late to a team meeting.
When the season finally concluded, Brendan Shanahan was left to ponder how to turn that nightmare of a season into hope and progress for the coming years.
Flash-forward to January 6, 2016, and a lot has changed. The Leafs changed general managers, coaches and scouts and went from one of the bottom prospect pools to one of the most enviable. Many roster changes have been made as well. The Leafs are playing with poise and structure thanks to coach Mike Babcock. There is a lot more optimism now that the Kessel trade was in fact the right move to make and the Leafs are better off after completing the deal. The feeling in the dressing room is that the players are much closer with each other as well, especially captain Dion Phaneuf and Morgan Rielly, who have spent time together outside of the rink. The Leafs are far from being perfect but they are much better off now.
The Leafs begin a three game road trip in California, where one year ago, lost all three games, failing to even register a single point and was essentially the point where the proverbial 18-wheeler fell off the cliff. To show there is no love lost between both squads he coached, Randy Carlyle will be in attendance for the game tonight.
The Leafs are still rebuilding but Babcock is going to do everything he can with this team to ensure they play as well as possible. The team has played well as of late and played very competitive hockey against the California-trio at home this season so don’t be surprised to see them get points and battle for wins on this road trip and down the stretch in the second half of this season.