The Maple Leafs’ decision to bring back head coach Randy Carlyle for the 2014-15 season will not sit well with his legion of critics. In most respects, the criticism is deserved: Carlyle was unable to pull Toronto out of its horrible death spiral that took the Leafs from challenging for home ice advantage in the playoffs to receiving the eighth overall pick in this summer’s NHL draft; he has a penchant for playing one-dimensional types such as Colton Orr and/or Frazer McLaren over more useful players; and he dismissively tossed goalie James Reimer’s confidence into the trash late in the year, then had to turn to the clearly-disheartened netminder after starter Jonathan Bernier was injured.
So when Leafs brass, including GM Dave Nonis and new president Brendan Shanahan, announced Thursday that Carlyle would return behind Toronto’s bench with a two-year contract extension – albeit, with a brand new group of assistant coaches – social media was awash in Blue and White rage. Again, it’s understandable why. After Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment head honcho Tim Leiweke came out in the strongest terms talking about Toronto’s need for a culture change – “I definitely sense we lack an identity,” he said during Shanahan’s introductory press conference in mid April – retaining Carlyle doesn’t seem to serve that purpose. As I noted on Twitter, the move was like a restaurant keeping a chef employed who had made a slew of abysmal dishes for customers and firing the wait staff instead.
What does this mean for the rest of Toronto’s off-season? You have to believe it means serious changes to the roster. There’s no way the Leafs can justify bringing Carlyle back with essentially the same group of players. Reimer is a certainty to move on and it’s unlikely unrestricted free agents David Bolland and Nikolai Kulemin will return, but replacing them won’t be enough. The current core has collapsed too many times, in too many ways, to put any amount of stock in the idea they’ll do something different in 2014-15.
Now, before Toronto supporters get too despondent, let’s remember Carlyle can still be fired at any time. If the Leafs start the season on a 2-8 skid, his contract extension will morph into a lovely golden parachute, just like the one his predecessor Ron Wilson received, and he will be but a bitter memory. Ownership can afford to throw out these extensions to management without any real repercussions.
However, there’s something to be said (and not something positive) for rewarding failure. That’s what Carlyle’s return feels like. Toronto was a defensive disaster and depended almost solely on Bernier’s brilliance. The coach had no answers to stem the bleeding when his players resembled the Crazy 88 fighting team in Kill Bill. His defenders are correct in saying Carlyle doesn’t step on the ice and the players have to take ultimate responsibility for the team’s disappointing showings, but anyone who saw the Leafs fall apart in 2013-14 saw a team that didn’t look the least bit inclined to save their coach’s job.
Leafs fans have grown far too accustomed to failure and dismay, but Carlyle’s extension marks a new nadir for most of them, because it smacks of stubbornness in the face of indefensible results. Carlyle will have a hell of a time changing their minds – and if he doesn’t and Toronto is back in the draft lottery next spring, the organization will come off looking as bad as it has since the dreaded Harold Ballard Era.