The Leafs Were Right To Fire Carlyle

I think I am starting to get a sense of why the Leafs have never tried a complete tear-it-down-rebuild in the  modern age of the NHL – frankly, the city can’t handle it.

Oh, they say they can, and some of them (us) really mean it.

But, collectively, uh-uh, no way.

All you have to do is look around Twitter a little, maybe read the Toronto Sun.

This team is icing Erixon, Brewer and MacWilliam as half of its defense-group and yet people are still getting angry. “I don’t care about draft picks, this is pathetic” is an oft-used phrase that I am seeing far more frequently than I can believe.

No offense to the aforementioned defensemen, but if the Leafs’ other three defenseman were Weber, Eriksson and Suter they’d still lose most of their games because you simply cannot dress three below replacement and expect to win.

All this to say that when I see people ripping Peter Horachek I really do – on the most fundamental level – understand why the Leafs have been hesitant to try a burn-it-down rebuild until now.

(John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports)
(John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports)

The Ultimate Insult

To me, the true level of absurdity that is the Maple Leafs fans and media (collectively you hear, there are obviously some sane people mixed in) can only be seen in the fraudulent, hilarious idea that Randy Carlyle should never have been fired.

The narrative goes a little something like this:  The Leafs were in a playoff spot and close to leading the NHL in team scoring when they inexplicably gave the axe to their poor coach and then proceeded to become almost historically bad.

This little saga usually follows up with some cheap-shot at people who like to back their opinions up with facts and data and then degenerates in the comment section into a deplorably boring referendum on the usefulness of advanced stats in the NHL.

This is all just a little too much for me, because it seems grossly unfair to rip the head coach of a team who is intentionally trying to draft as high as possible in the upcoming NHL draft.

So here are some things you should know if you think Randy Carlyle got a bad deal or (if you’re completely off the rails) believe that Carlyle personally would have had this team competing for a Playoff spot.

Because the Leafs were right to fire Carlyle and Scotty Bowman himself couldn’t have saved this season.

1. Despite winning a Stanley Cup with the (Stacked with potential Hall of Famers) Ducks ten years ago, Randy Carlyle coached teams are routinely among the lowest possession teams in the NHL.

Say what you want about advanced stats – if they aren’t for you, that’s totally fine –  but no other stat or idea comes close to being as predictive in terms of team success as the possession stats.  Teams that possess the puck tend to win hockey games and while there are always a few outliers, it matters.

There is no evidence that – in the last decade – Randy Carlyle is a good coach, but there is a lot that says he’s very ineffective. He won a championship and has been able to ride that for a long time, but that’s actually very typical of sports and the reason stats (in every sport) are so popular now is because of how often they expose this kind of bias.

Phil Kessel Maple Leafs
(Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

2. When Carlyle was fired at the start of January, the Leafs were already in a free fall. Yes, you expect that a new coach will give you a nice little upward bounce, but that’s a certifiable myth.  The reality is that bad teams fire their coaches and stay bad no matter who comes in.

At the time Carlyle was fired, the Leafs had just a) lost to Winnipeg in one of the most listless pathetic games you’ll ever see a team play b) lost three in a row  c) would have lost six in a row, but for a lucky shoot-out win vs. the Bruins on New Years Eve d) lost six of their last nine e) appeared to have completely quit on their coach.

3. Everyone talks about how the Leafs were leading the NHL in offense under Randy Carlyle – as if he personally did something to make this happen.  Now, he may have done a bit, I am not saying that his style or system didn’t emphasize offense (to the detriment of defense) because it did, but check out some of these numbers:

– The Leafs were fourth in the NHL at the time of RC’s firing with 82 even-strength goals.  Yet, they were first in the NHL with a league high shooting percentage of 9.5%.  Given that the Leaf clearly do not (or did not) have anything close to the best offensive team in hockey on paper, we should definitely be crediting this high shooting percentage to good luck.

– Toronto had the fourth highest PDO in the NHL. PDO is the sum of a team’s shooting and save percentages and if it’s around 100 it is said the team is being rewarded fairly for its efforts.  If it’s higher, they are getting lucky and if it’s lower they are unlucky.  It’s just a guide, but a good one, and the Leafs, with the fourth highest PDO in the NHL were easy to call for a fall-off in play, which they experienced under Horachek once Carlyle was gone.

– Though Carlyle supposedly had the Leafs playing so well when he was inexplicably fired, no one seems to acknowledge that the day the Leafs fired him, they were 28th in the NHL in goals allowed at even-strength.

That’s right, 3rd worst in the entire NHL ahead of just Edmonton and Buffalo. Again, this suggest that had the Leafs kept Carlyle, they were due to go into the tank anyways, because you simply cannot make the Playoffs when you are 3rd last in goals allowed.

(Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)
(Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

4. Even though people keep saying that the Leafs were quote “in a Playoff spot” when Carlyle was fired, that is a technical statement only. In fact, both the teams below  the Leafs had games in hand and the Leafs were ahead of them at that time only because they had played more games. The breakdown being attributed to Horachek had already began (as I pointed out above).

The bottom line is this: The Leafs were in 8th place when Carlyle was fired, despite having insanely good luck the whole season. I wrote about it here, on December 8th, in the midst of the Leafs luck fueled ten-game unbeaten streak that nearly convinced people they were for real.  They weren’t for real, and as you can see, anyone could have (and did) predict that they would collapse.

Here is a list of ways the Leafs were getting lucky while RC was their coach:

– Played into December without ever blowing a lead after two periods or getting a significant injury.

– They were winning despite playing Tyler Bozak as their top centre and not having an #1 defenseman,

– They were just marginally outside of 28th in shots against and yet had a winning record.

– They were one of three teams in the NHL to have a winning record when being out-shot, something that is not sustainable over a full season, outside of massive statistical anomalies.

– They were fourth in the NHL in ES scoring and lead the league in Shooting %

– Bozak was putting up a PP fueled and non-sustainable point per game.

– They were just marginally outside the top five for PK and PP.


If you take all of that into consideration and then realize that even with everything going right for them, they could only get as high as eighth place, it seems like a smart decision for management to change coaches once they had (basically) lost six games in a row.  If it takes extreme luck to get to 8th, it’s obvious that luck will betray you eventually and that you will fall down the standings. Better to do it on your own terms and get a better pick for the future.

(John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports)
(John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports)

5. This is getting long, so I’ll be brief here, but I think it’s important to acknowledge that when Horachek took over on January 6th, the Leafs proceeded to go on a streak of bad luck so terrible it was almost historic. Now, don’t get me wrong, the team hasn’t responded to him and I deplore the fact that he has kept Bozak with Kessel and JVR, and continued to give Phaneuf more ice-time than Rielly.

But still, overall, I like him. I like his tone and straight-forward way of speaking with the media, I can definitely see how he has a reputation as a player’s coach and a good communicator and I can excuse the losing because that’s on management, not the coach. Let’s just look at how unlucky he’s been and see if it’s fair to criticize him in favor or RC.

– His team is shooting 6.4% (all situations) good for second last in the NHL.  If you go back to 2002, one team out of close to 400 teams has shot under 7%, so that is pretty crazy.

– In the first ten games, the Leafs shot 4.8% under PH.

– Phil Kessel is scoring at a 14 goal pace under Horachek after being the second highest overall scorer for the last three years.  As Jonas Seigal points out, since Horachek took over, Kessel is being outscored at 5v5 by Santorelli, Franson, Winnik and has the same amount as Smith, Polak and Kozun.

Say what you want about Horachek, but it can’t be his fault that Kessel went from being equal to a Tarasenko or a Kane to a Kozun or a Smith.

– Bernier was providing MVP goaltending for Carlyle and then dissipated after Christmas. Bozak fell off the face of the earth and JVR went from potential 40 goal scorer to playing like a guy who wants to get bought out.

– The Leafs had injuries, a tough schedule (it was insane in PH’s first week) bad luck, forty-three separate controversies and management dismantled the team, while the MVP play Bernier flashed earlier in the season to keep Carlyle around dried up and disappeared.

Final Analysis

When it’s all said and done, you really have to have to ignore a lot of things in order to honestly say that firing Carlyle was a mistake.  It’s clear with even the most cursory analysis that he rode some hot luck to a decent half-season record. There was, however, no logical reason to think he could have kept it going and the team fired him at the first signs of it going off the rails.

They brought in Horachek and people unfairly expected him to get the team going, but what they got was that their best players quit playing, and nothing else mattered.  The luck evened out (and got quite a bit worse) and then management saddled him with a roster not even worth of the AHL.

So, comparing the two coaches isn’t even intellectually honest, since they don’t even have the same teams, but it’s downright lunacy to sit there and pine for Carlyle as if he did anything but sort-of capitalize on dumb luck.  It shows me that this team is in for a rough time during this rebuild if we don’t at least demand intellectual honesty in our conversations and debates.  To sit there and say the Leafs were better off with Carlyle is a joke. It’s not even in the realm of things that might be possible. He was a bad coach and he got fired. The Leafs were a bad team and haven’t improved under their new coach. They were still a bad team under Carlyle, they just got lucky.

I don’t blame too much on Carlyle, he couldn’t have done any better and the blame for how bad the team is has to fall to Burke and Nonis, but he was still a bad coach and Horachek is an unknown. It’s not like I am saying he’s done an excellent job, just that you can’t possibly tell since no one could have done an excellent job under these circumstances.

Because there is no way anyone can look at the evidence and decide that Carlyle could have done any better. It’s not fair to rag on Horachek for anything that’s happened, with the exception of his line and ice-time choices and those aren’t even factors at this point. The fact is, the Leafs were already heading down and no coach in the world could have prevented this. Bernier and Kessel checked out early and the team suffered some unusual bad luck, then  management accelerated the process by making some trades for the future.  It’s actually not that bad, and Horachek might actually be a good coach – but there is no way to tell at this point.


All stats

Thanks for reading.