Toronto Maple Leafs at the Halfway Mark
The National Hockey League (NHL) season has reached the halfway mark. It's a long season; the teams play 82 games before the playoffs start. Given that the season is so long, each team will go through up periods and down periods. The Toronto Maple Leafs are a franchise in turmoil, having fired their coach, Randy Carlyle, because of a protracted period of mediocre hockey following a strong start to the season.
Randy Carlyle as Player and Coach
Randy Carlyle was fired as coach after the 40th game. He has had a long career in the NHL, first as a solid defenseman and then as a coach. He won the Norris Trophy as the league's best defenseman for the 1980-81 season.
As coach of the Anaheim Ducks, Carlyle led the team to the Stanley Cup in 2007. The Ducks never had as good a season again under Carlyle and he was fired as coach 24 games into the 2011-12 season. He was hired by Toronto in March 2012 and finished the season out of the playoffs. In the following, lockout-shortened season, the Maple Leafs made the playoffs for the first time in ten years and were ahead 4-1 with only ten minutes left in the third period, in game seven of the first round, in Boston, when disaster struck from which the team has never fully recovered. Boston scored three quick goals to tie and won the game in overtime.
The Last Two Years
The Maple Leafs lost 10 of their last 12 games to miss the playoffs last year but started this year well. They were 18-9-3 when they hit a major slump, losing seven of ten games. Randy Carlyle was fired after the Leafs' 40th game of the season, almost exactly at the halfway mark.
One aspect of the Leafs play in the Carlyle era is their scoring chance percentage. They seem to play a low puck possession game. In the first 20 games this season, the Leafs' percentage of total scoring chances per game was just under 50% and this was reflected in their record. In the second 20 games of the season, their scoring chances rate dropped to 40%. Hockey being by far the most fluid of the four major team sports in North America, and a game in which a single good scoring chance often decides the outcome of the game, a rate that low guarantees losses.
A similar statistic is simple shot differential. In fact, last season the Leafs allowed so many more shots on goal than they took that they seemed statistically to be more like an expansion team than a team with a long, illustrious history as an Original Six NHL team. This season's early hot streak in which the Leafs went 10-1-1 was done during a period in which they were profoundly outshot and their goalies had sensational game after sensational game. When the statistical anomaly ended, the Leafs began the downhill slide that resulted in the coach's firing. There is consensus that the quality of shots is a truer parameter than the mere number of shots, but the Leafs were being so profoundly outshot that even poor percentage shots often resulted in goals from screens, tip-ins, or rebounds.
Twitter lit up with fans' reactions to the firing. The comments can be divided into three basic categories: the coach was mediocre and should have been fired, preferably sooner; the team is mediocre and the coach did the best anyone could, given the players he had; both the coach and the players were mediocre. Carlyle was criticized for failing to reach his core players who would have then led the rest of the team. The players were criticized for failing to learn from their coach who, after all, had won the Stanley Cup with a former expansion team.
Few Tweets laid the blame at the foot of management. The last time the Leafs won the Stanley Cup was in 1967. Since then, there has been little but futility in Toronto. The Leafs finished out of the playoffs in 19 of the subsequent 47 seasons. They were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs in 13 of the 28 seasons in which they qualified for the playoffs.
What lies next for a once-elite franchise that can't seem to acquire enough top tier players to form the core of a team that could make a run at the Cup? Certainly management will have to evaluate the entire team from prospects in College or in the Minor Leagues, to the present roster, to all the assistant coaches. Clearly, there are many NHL teams who seem to have a better understanding of how to build a championship team than do the Leafs. It would be a relief if the long-suffering fans could at least have a competitive team on the ice to cheer for. Given that attendance has not fallen off despite the many disappointments, management would be well-advised to consider whether there is a tipping point for the allegiance of Toronto fans.