TORONTO – While the future face of the Maple Leafs was being introduced beside Gate 5 of the Air Canada Centre on Monday morning, the head coach of the hockey club was busy conducting exit interviews for perhaps the final time in Toronto.
One player – a young defenceman, almost certain to be 23-year-old Jake Gardiner based on the clues – entered the office of Randy Carlyle and expressed frustration with the constraints he felt from the coaching staff early in the season. Carlyle was admittedly shocked by the revelation, especially taken aback by who this player compared himself with in the league.
"There's some surprising things that come back from players, something you'd never imagine," Carlyle said on Tuesday afternoon, his future as the Leafs head coach on the most uncertain of terms at the outset of another disappointing offseason in Toronto.
It was one more (and perhaps final) source of befuddlement for a coach still in search of answers following a season that unraveled in rapid and stinging fashion. In less than a month, his team went from chasing home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs to 12th in the East and an eighth absence from the playoffs in the past nine seasons.
"We never really created an identity for our hockey club this year," he said, worn down after missing the postseason for just the second time in his NHL coaching career. "We didn't play to an identity and that's what was disturbing because we had been a competitive group in the year previous. We felt that this group going forward was ready to take the next step and a lot of people felt the same way and it didn't materialize."
Carlyle's imagined idea of Maple Leaf hockey was realized only in the most fleeting of moments, never consistently, be it from shift to shift, period to period, or game to game. He pushed and prodded for a team that was difficult to play against, that defended with vigour and attitude, that slugged it out for extended periods in the offensive zone (Toronto was amongst the worst possession teams in the league) and he rarely got it.
Dave Bolland and David Clarkson were supposed to help establish that brand – replacing Mikhail Grabovski, Clarke MacArthur and Leo Komarov amongst others – but with Bolland's long-term injury and Clarkson's year-long struggle, the club actually felt off rather dramatically in terms of the identity and attitude it had established in 48 games last season. The drop-off from Grabovski to replacements for Bolland (and Tyler Bozak thereafter) was considerable as was the dip from MacArthur and Komarov to Clarkson.
Those offseason changes, made by Dave Nonis, were seemingly made with the brand of the head coach in mind.
Carlyle banged the drum loudly all year for what needed to change – even as the group piled up wins in early October and in parts beyond – but could never figure out how to make it stick, his brand of hockey rarely aligning with a group that was equally hard-headed and ultimately unfit to play such a style or system consistently.
"We spent a lot of time and effort on trying to create, sell, visualize what it means to be a Toronto Maple Leaf," he said. "For this year we were not able to create that. Those are the things that you're going to scratch your head and bang your head against the wall 'Why didn't it happen? Why didn't it happen?' And that's what we're all asking ourselves: 'Why didn't it happen?' Because we had it the previous shortened season, the lockout season. We were a hard team to play against."
But in the lockout year of 2013, the Leafs had a superb penalty kill, a top-10 offence and strong goaltending, elements that glossed over some of the instabilities that became quickly apparent in the 2013-14 campaign that followed. Despite woeful defensive play, they made it to March in good shape on the strength of a top-five power-play, a dominant top line and superb goaltending from Jonathan Bernier.
Once those elements quieted some, the house of cards collapsed – Carlyle said they lost their "mojo" following a successful swing through California. (Over-using the likes of Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk down the stretch, with nothing suitable on the fourth line for support, surely didn't help matters.)
Replacing the high-risk, high-reward Ron Wilson, Carlyle was supposed to dramatically alter the course of the Leafs upon his arrival in March 2012, both in terms of structure and style. He was supposed to be the elixir, especially, for how they defended, but in 2013-14, Carlyle's Leafs were actually worse in keeping the puck out of the net than in Wilson's final full season behind the bench.
No team in the league gave up as many shots as the squad in Toronto – 856 more in fact than the NHL's best in New Jersey – forcing the goaltending to be better than average most nights for two points.
Carlyle trumpeted the struggle as a matter of compete – part of the problem certainly – obfuscating of course his inability to affect change where it was once promised he would.
"We're not asking the players to do something that they haven't done before or wouldn't have done in another situation – be it junior hockey or American Hockey League," Carlyle. "You have to play and you have to compete on the defensive side of the puck with will and commitment and we did not want to do that on a day-to-day basis and that's what our struggles were."
His status for next season remains uncertain at best. Neither new president, Brendan Shanahan, nor his second in command Dave Nonis would say if Carlyle would be back, preferring to thoroughly assess the group first in the days ahead.
"I'm here today," Carlyle said.
But he was still searching for answers...
"If you think you have all the answers you're in the wrong business," he concluded. "There's things that you know you'd like to do differently as a staff, as a person, as an individual. There's certain ways you deal with certain things. There's points that you felt should've been a lot stronger on or you should've been softer on. There's all those things. You're going to question yourself all the time."