By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (May 11) – In his popular weekend notes column, my friend Steve Simmons of the Toronto Sun wrote, “Randy Carlyle can’t coach anymore – or so many of his critics contend.”
I have no idea whether Steve considers me among those critics or pays attention to anything I write. For the record, though, I have never even implied that Carlyle “can’t coach.” Nor have most others. I just wonder how the Maple Leafs’ ice-level leadership – Carlyle, Dion Phaneuf and Phil Kessel – can still be expected to respond favorably in a crisis, particularly late in the season. The coach, in my view, is ill-fitted for this group of players and vise versa. Given the contractual predicament at the top of the Maple Leafs roster, I felt a new voice (and direction) behind the bench was a good place to begin the so-called “culture change.” And, the pattern of losing when games matter most.
I have long considered David Nonis a gentleman and a good hockey man. Questioning his judgement in retaining Carlyle doesn’t modify that opinion. But, I haven’t heard or read anything of substance from the general manager about how his hockey club – fragile and rudderless in the final month of the season – can resolve its penchant to fold.
As I’ve written, this is not just about Carlyle. Yes, he’s the ring-master and he seemed to be on a different planet than his players in crunch time – from mid-March to mid-April. Those who support his retention by the Maple Leafs point to the Stanley Cup he won in Anaheim seven long years ago but fail to mention how the Ducks have improved by leaps and bounds since replacing Carlyle with former Leaf teammate Bruce Boudreau. That said, Carlyle, like any coach, has to be upheld by the core elements of his team – in this case, Phaneuf and Kessel. To borrow a baseball term, the Leafs “took the collar” with that trio in Game 7 against Boston last year; then again during the frightful 2-12-0 corkscrew that ruined the current season. Nonis describing Carlyle as “the man who can get the job done for us” sounds good, but carries minimal weight. And shuffling the deck chairs among support players – as the Maple Leafs GM will attempt to do this summer – cannot remedy a leadership void among the most critical components at ice level.
IS THERE ANYTHING NEW ON THE HORIZON FOR MAPLE LEAF FANS?
This, to me, is hardly rocket science.
If the Maple Leafs of the past three years were on trial in court – accused of failing under pressure – a judgement would be rendered within minutes. What evidence could a hapless defense attorney put forth to nullify any such allegation beyond a reasonable doubt? And how can the team, therefore, offer up rationale to retain its long-foundering nucleus? Would a fourth collapse (Phaneuf and Kessel, if you remember, were prime figures during the late-season debacle of 2011-12 that ousted Ron Wilson) suffice in procuring fundamental change? Or is “urgency” still a foreign word in the Toronto hockey dictionary?
When Nonis secured Kessel and Phaneuf this past season for eight and seven years respectively, it seemed like good asset management. Kessel always threatens the 40-goal plateau and Phaneuf is on the ice for nearly half of every game. But that was prior to the release of “Horror on Bay Street – Part 3.” We are therefore left to wonder which sequel might end the calamitous trilogy. And why the director felt compelled to re-hire the producer. If this were a low-budget film, perhaps we could understand. But the financially engorged Maple Leafs haven’t won – or even been runner-up for – an Academy Award in nearly half-a-century. Isn’t it time to change at least one of the producer or leading actors?
I have read in several places since Friday that Carlyle’s extension shows the Leaf players “where the buck stops.” But, a one-year contract plus a team option doesn’t add up to an enduring vote of confidence from Nonis and Brendan Shanahan. What it says, in my view, is “You’re our coach until the team begins to founder or until we can find someone else.” Quite frankly, I’m a bit surprised Carlyle agreed to such terms, given that he promptly would have landed a more secure deal elsewhere (Florida apparently the most likely destination).
So, what might be different here in Toronto?
In mid-April, I wrote that Nonis should make a coaching change and do everything in his power this summer to move Phaneuf. That would truly revise the frail “culture” of the Leafs, as CEO Tim Leiweke is fond of saying. Part ‘A’ clearly won’t happen. Will Part ‘B’? And, if not, where does the culture change come from – the third and fourth-liners the Leafs routinely shuffle in and out each year? I doubt it. If Nonis keeps his three-headed nucleus in place, those are the only cards he’ll be left to deal. And, the culture of losing will almost certainly continue.
So, to clarify: Randy Carlyle can coach; Dion Phaneuf can play effectively with lots of ice time and Phil Kessel can score with the best of them. Individually, they would be sound elements of any team in the NHL. As a tandem, and as we’ve sufficiently witnessed, they couldn’t lead a starving man to the dinner table. Why anyone in the Maple Leafs’ hierarchy continues to believe otherwise is a mystery.
WHY I’M PULLING FOR THE BRUINS: When I started covering the Maple Leafs full time for The FAN-590 in 1994, my rooting interest in hockey vanished. Watching the game became a business and the emotional attachment has never returned. Through a tragic scenario, however, I’m pulling hard for Boston to win the Stanley Cup this spring. An old school chum of mine, Alvin Mudryk, died this week of cancer. He and I were born three days apart in 1959 – me on Feb. 3; Alvin on Feb. 6. During his funeral service Sunday afternoon, his relatives and Rabbi Howard Morrison of Beth Emeth Synagogue in North York spoke about Alvin’s incredible passion for the Bruins. Morrison, a native of Brookline, Mass., near Boston, even wore a skull-cap (keepah) with a Bruins logo on it. Alvin’s niece, Brooke, spoke at the funeral about watching Game 4 of the Bruins-Habs series Thursday at the Bell Centre on TV and wondering if her uncle, who had died the previous night, “was okay.” When Matt Fraser, in his playoff debut for Boston, scored 1:19 into overtime, Brooke had the answer and was able to smile through her tears.
Alvin leaves behind his wife Susan; children Ryan, Ashley and Lindsay; brothers Gary and Ephry, and – most painfully – his mother and father, Ann and Jack. There are elements of life that none of us will ever understand. This is one of them.
Rest in peace, old friend.
And, go Bruins!
ALVIN MUDRYK: 1959-2014.
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