Sunday, March 17, 2013

The Crimes of Randy Carlyle

Randy Carlyle Leafs bad coach

There's a case to be made that Randy Carlyle is a rogue agent sent to infiltrate the Maple Leafs and take them down from the inside.

Carlyle has made a number of curious decisions that are putting the Leafs in a position to lose. The Leafs have to overcome many of Carlyle's decisions on a nightly basis in order to win.

Last night's most glaring example was passing on Mikhail Grabovski over 10 shootout rounds.

"You try to go with your best people from a pure skill standpoint," Carlyle told "You're always criticized because you didn't pick the right guy when you lose it."

Apparently, from a  pure skill standpoint, Cody Franson and Dion Phaneuf are both better than Grabovksi because Carlyle chose both ahead of Grabovski. If Bogosion didn't score to end the game you can be sure the next names on the list weren't Grabovski either. Colton Orr, Fraser McClaren (who would come down from the press box), Mike Brown (who would come back from Edmonton), were surely on the tip of Carlyle's tongue.

Coaches are criticised regardless of what they do, but when they make poor decisions the criticism is justified. Carlyle could have picked Orr, Komorov, and Holzer last night in the shootout, and the decision would still be wrong even if all three scored and the Leafs won the game. It's the process that matters, not the result.

There are a number of reasons why Carlyle's process has made the Leafs less likely to win throughout the season.

The Top-pairing defence: Dion and a mop with a drawn-on smiley face

Until last night, Carlyle has mismanaged the defence badly. Despite owning a left-handed heavy defensive unit, Carlyle insisted on moving Phaneuf to the left side even though Phaneuf has played almost his entire career on the right side (his off-wing). That decision meant Phaneuf could no longer play with Carl Gunnarsson, who did a good job last year in a shutdown role with the captain. Instead, Phaneuf has rotated through two AHL partners, Mike Kostka and Korbinian Holzer. If you're giving the two sheltered minutes that's fine, but Phaneuf plays 25-plus minutes a night against the opposition's top players. That's no place for an AHL player.

Last night Phaneuf was finally (mercifully) reunited with Gunnarsson, and while the pair were on the ice for a goal against, they logged close to 28 minutes and were effective.

Holzer: German for disaster

Continuing with the defence, Carlyle has yet to figure out that Holzer is not an NHL player. His decision making isn't at an NHL level, neither is his skating ability. He is routinely beat in coverage and has a troubling habit of admiring the other team's passes as they go right through him. Last night, for example, Holzer just watched as a simple, stoppable pass went right through his legs and forced Ben Scrivens to make a spectacular save. The announcers were confused and wondered whether Holzer thought his defence partner was behind him. Fans were confused and wondered why Holzer wasn't with the Marlies.

When Holzer is on the ice at even strength the Leafs are under a barrage. The opposition take almost 30 more shot attempts per 60 minutes when Holzer plods onto the ice.

Holzer is still playing second-pair minutes at even strength despite showing no real NHL ability. Even Mike Kostka is a better option.

The best option, however, is only a short ride down the Gardiner Expressway. Jake Gardiner, after missing some time with a concussion, is back to manhandling the AHL. He's logging huge minutes and has 13 points in his last 16 games. He has 31 points in 42 games and Marlies' coach Dallas Eakins said he is "absolutely" NHL ready.

Being one of the few positive puck-possession defencemen for the Leafs last season, Gardiner has the ability to improve a brutal Toronto defence that is filled with place holders. There is really no reason to keep him in the AHL. It's not like there are better options ahead of him on the depth chart actively suppressing him. If anything, Korbinian Holzer is a German robot sent to the NHL by Gardiner himself to show Carlyle how badly he is missing Gardiner's skills.

Nazem Kadri: "Please, sir, I want some more minutes"

Carlyle has to be commended for bringing Kadri along slowly, putting him in a position to succeed. Kadri gets matched up against third-line quality competition and is receiving slightly more starts in the offensive zone than defensive zone. At the beginning of the season Kadri wasn't allowed anywhere near the defensive zone, but as his comfort level has increased, Carlyle has been more trusting of the youngster.

Kadri has responded with 27 points in 29 games and is tied with Phil Kessel for the team lead in points. That's good! And sure, maybe he isn't ready for the first line, but he's still only registering around 15 minutes a night. Tyler Bozak, by comparison, is playing more minutes than any other Leaf forward, despite being hot garbage at most aspects of hockey outside the faceoff circle. Bozak is ninth on the team in even strength points and is scoring less per 60 minutes than Frazer McClaren. He isn't very good defensively either, so it's not like he makes up for his slingshot offense by playing tough in his own end.

Because he's a bad hockey player, there is no excuse for continually playing Tyler Bozak on the first power play unit. Kadri has 6 power play points, one more than Bozak, despite receiving about a minute less each night on the power play. Bozak's power play time should be stripped and divided between Kadri and Mikhail Grabovski. Speaking of...

The Burying of Mikhail Grabovski: A Crime by the Fourth Line

Grabovski is scoring at the worst rate of his career. He only has 11 points in 29 games after signing a big 5-year deal, and is now playing only 16:43 a game, the lowest total since his first season with the Leafs. He also is getting the seventh most power play ice time among Leafs forwards, almost half of what Bozak gets, and far less than he did the last two seasons. In part, this reduction is due to Kadri's emergence. It's also due to Carlyle's preference for Bozak, likely because he's marginally better in the faceoff circle.

In addition to eroding power play time, Grabovski's lack of production is due entirely to the way Carlyle has been using him at even strength. Grabovski is being treated like a checker, rather than a scorer. He faces the opposition's best players, like he has most of the past two seasons, but is now being absolutely buried in the defensive end. Grabovski is only starting 36.1% of his shifts in the offensive zone. That's similar to  players like Eric Belanger, Boyd Gordon, Chris Kelly, and Max Talbot. Goal scorers, they ain't. The last two years when Grabovski flirted with 30 goals, he started over 50% of his shifts in the offensive zone. That makes a huge difference in the offense a player can generate.

Unfortunately, Carlyle has no choice. Well he does, but he takes that choice away from himself by insisting on playing both Colton Orr and Fraser McClaren on the fourth line for most of the season. Last year, with David Steckel on the fourth line, the Leafs could give Grabovski a break from the defensive end and allow Steckel to take most of the draws in the defensive end. Now, however, the fourth line has to be sheltered like a hobo in a snowstorm, because they can barely survive a 30-second shift.

Grabovski isn't scoring because he suddenly became bad at hockey over the summer. He isn't scoring because Carlyle is turning him into an overpriced checker, all because he is infatuated with punchers who can't help his hockey team.

The Leafs jumped out to a quick start to this season despite Carlyle's decisions, not because of them. From playing Mike Kostka 30 minutes a night on the top pair to playing a punching line five minutes a night, Carlyle's coaching moves have had a deleterious ripple effect through the rest of the roster and are putting the Leafs in a position to lose.

Last night, many of Carlyle's moves were in line with what a large majority of Leafs fans have be clamouring for: Gunnarsson on the top pair; the reunification of the Grabovksi-MacArthur-Kulemin line; and a more capable fourth line. The Leafs still got hammered in the second period, ultimately losing in a shootout. One loss doesn't make those decisions wrong, however.  It didn't get the results, but it was a better process. And over the remaining 19 games, using a sound process will produce better results.

A losing streak caused Carlyle to readjust his poor process, and he was rewarded with another loss. But going back to what worked for him earlier in the season won't produce results either, it will only ensure another playoff-less spring for Toronto.

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