TORONTO – Two months ago, the Maple Leafs management team deemed that Randy Carlyle was the “right person” to continue lead their team, but felt the need for change somewhere in light of another late season spiral.
Three assistant coaches were fired that day in early May – in a unique move that saw the head coach remain – replaced Friday by Marlies coach Steve Spott and longtime Predators assistant Peter Horachek in a bid to further alter the atmosphere of a team deemed to be requiring “culture change” by MLSE president Tim Leiweke.
“I'm not the big culture change kind of guy,” said general manager Dave Nonis, shortly after the announcement of the new two new assistants. “I think you can't flip a switch with two coaches and say that everything's going to be different. I think people bring things to the table that either help you achieve success or don't. These guys they've shown in the past that they can do that.”
Carlyle bellowed long and loudly for change last year, frustrated by his club's inability to compete to a level he deemed appropriate. Weak foundations – poor defensive play, possession and penalty killing – were propped up by terrific goaltending, a mostly potent power-play and a dominant first line. He saw the flaws early, but ultimately was unable to affect much change as the year lingered on.
“6-1 is only a stat,” he said in mid-October after his team won six of its first seven games. “It's a nervous time in the coaches' office because of the shot differential and the quality of chances that we're giving up.”
Employment of personnel didn't help matters, particularly an overreliance on veterans like Jay McClement and an underuse of young players on a fourth line fronted by heavyweight Colton Orr.
Somewhere along the way his message didn't stick or perhaps grew stale. In shaking up the assistants who surround Carlyle, management is hoping that will change. “Part of the changes that we are looking to make is in the atmosphere and that's not a knock on the other coaches because they had their strengths for sure,” said Nonis.
“But relationships and developing relationships with the players is probably as big an issue now around the league as anything. Players have to want to play for you. I think these guys have had a pretty good track record in that regard.”
Leaf players were surprised by the late spring firings of Dave Farrish, Greg Cronin and Scott Gordon, particularly Farrish whose fate was thought to be tied to Carlyle, his longtime associate. Farrish, who ran the defence and Toronto's sixth-ranked power-play, was known as a lighter voice in the room – a stark contrast to the harder-edged Carlyle – capable of brightening the mood in dark times.
Cronin and Gordon, who led the Leafs once hopeful but ultimately disastrous penalty kill, appeared to be sounding boards, often locked into long conversations with players after practice (Gordon on multiple occasions with Phil Kessel).
Management deemed that their replacements have previous head coaching experience – Farrish, Cronin and Gordon were all head coaches themselves prior to coming to Toronto – believing that to be valuable in support of Carlyle. Both new hirings will be expected to share in dealings with the media, a considerable change from recent years where assistants under both Carlyle and Ron Wilson were consistently unavailable to press.
“I think if you've walked in those shoes before it makes it easier to help,” said Nonis of head coaching experience.
It wasn't immediately clear how duties would be split between Spott and Horachek – one will likely run power-play, the other penalty kill as with most clubs – but Nonis indicated Carlyle playing a “big or bigger role than he's had in the past” in terms of special teams.
Spott, who did a terrific job guiding the youthful Marlies to within one game of the Calder Cup final, will be relied upon for his experience in guiding Toronto's young talent. Management viewed him as a candidate to join the NHL staff from the outset, waiting to make their interest clear until his team was quieted in a Western Conference final loss to the eventual champs from Texas.
“It wasn't just veterans carrying the ball,” Nonis said of Spott's success as a first-year American League coach. “He used young players all the time. He put them in different situations. He allowed some of those players to grow despite some mistakes that they were making.”
Formerly the bench boss in Kitchener and the Canadian World Jr. team (2013), Spott has coached prospective Leafs like Petter Granberg, Carter Ashton, Stuart Percy, and Peter Holland, not to mention current Leafs such as Nazem Kadri, Morgan Rielly and David Clarkson, the latter maintaining a close relationship with Spott.
The Leafs appear to be trending younger, team president Brendan Shanahan speaking earlier in the week of his desire for “our young players…to have job opportunities”.
“We need our young players to have an impact,” Nonis said. “The assistant coaches will have a major role in that.”
The Leafs continue to view Spott as a future NHL head coach.
Horachek, a native of Stoney Creek, Ontario, spent nine seasons as an assistant to Barry Trotz in Nashville before being fired in 2013. He resurfaced as a head coach with the AHL's San Antonio Rampage the following season before ascending to the top job with the Panthers when Kevin Dineen was let go. The 54-year-old boasts an IHL championship from his days as the lead man in Orlando (Carlyle was the head coach of the IHL's Manitoba Moose at the time).
Boasting a mismatched roster in Florida with uneven goaltending last season, Horachek's Panthers had awful special teams – last in both power-play and penalty kill – but decent possession numbers considering the talent.
“He's a firm guy,” Nonis said of Horachek, consulting with longtime Predators general manager David Poile prior to the hiring. “I think he's kind of a no-nonsense coach, but he's very well groomed. He's got a player's background and again a very long and I think impressive coaching background.
“When it came down to it he was the guy that really fit the type of coach we needed and we feel that Randy needs as well.”
In reconstructing their roster this summer the organization went hard after players with solid leadership and character credentials – Stephane Robidas, Dan Boyle and Josh Gorges among the targets – seemingly concerned by the mix that fell hard out of the playoffs for the second time in three seasons.
In adding Spott and Horachek, it appears they are trying to do the same with a coaching staff that missed a step a year ago – albeit with the same head man leading the charge. Consistent in management's view of both hires was their ability to build strong relationships with players, communication not known to be a strong suit of an old-school type like Carlyle. Whether that leads to a more consistent and successful product on the ice remains to be seen.