TORONTO – In the aftermath of their first victory this season a triumphant Randy Carlyle summed up the goal for his hockey club.
"We're trying to earn respect back for the organization," he said in the bowels of the Bell Centre that night, fresh off a 2-1 win over the Canadiens. "When you're the butt of jokes in the hockey world it's not fun and we take that very serious … You definitely don't like to be looked upon as a team that's finishing in the bottom quarter of the league or what not. Our focus is to change that."
When the 113-day lockout ended on January 6, expectations were low for a team that had missed the playoffs epicly for the seventh consecutive season the previous spring. But with seven games left in the 2013 campaign, the Leafs sit a surprising fifth in the Eastern Conference, well on their way to the postseason for the first time in nine years.
There may be more deserving candidates for the honour, Paul MacLean, Dan Bylsma
, Joel Quenneville, Michel Therrien and Bruce Boudreau among them, but Carlyle deserves to have his name in the conversation for the Jack Adams Award. Under his direction, the Leafs have transformed into a brute, scrappy, high-scoring annoyance, one that despite inexperience – especially in goal and on defence – has managed to "earn respect back for the organization".
Known to be meticulous in his demand for details, Carlyle has incorporated structure, order and an edgy culture to the team in Toronto, ensuring a grinding brand of hockey that most of his players have accepted as necessary for success.
"He knows how he wants us to play," Carl Gunnarsson
told TSN.ca, "and if we don't do it he'll let us hear about it."
His demeanor has been steady throughout, Carlyle constantly pressing his group to "manage success" through the highs and lows in this relentless year, never more apparent than in early March when his club dropped five straight. Rather than falter in the adversity of a season-long winless skid – as the group had done a year ago – his Leafs reverted to the requisite structure and rebounded with an eight-game point streak that all but cemented their playoff fortunes.
Accountability is the buzz word, but what Carlyle has done is offer a template to which he believes the game should be played – unwaveringly physical with a pushy forecheck and slug-it-out offensive attack – and ensured that the puzzle pieces fit into place. He has gone against the grain in many situations, staying stubborn and true to his desired template. Mark Fraser
was one such example. An American Leaguer with the Marlies last season, the 26-year-old found an early fit under the Carlyle brand and remained in the lineup with the Leafs while the more graceful Jake Gardiner
stuck with the Marlies or in the press box.
Very much along those lines, roles have been carved out in clear-cut fashion under Carlyle's direction, the likes of Fraser, Nazem Kadri
, Jay McClement
, Leo Komarov
, and Cody Franson
all achieving success with clearly defined responsibilities. Franson, for instance, has carved out a niche on what's become a second pairing with Fraser, becoming more assertive defensively while additionally earning regular duty on the power-play. Role players like McClement and Komarov meanwhile are relied upon for energy, smarts and obvious strengths on the penalty kill.
While Dallas Eakins
and the Marlies coaching staff deserve the majority of credit, Kadri may be Carlyle's greatest individual success, the 22-year-old gathering 41 points in 41 games this season. "He's done an excellent job with me and given me the confidence to just go out there and just play," Kadri said of Carlyle in conversation with TSN.ca. "He understands that my benefits outweigh my deficiencies. Especially when I make a mistake, it's not like I'm glued to the bench for the next 10-12 minutes, I'm right back out there next shift and it gives me an opportunity to redeem myself." Phil Kessel
is another product of the Carlyle effect, the 25-year-old evolving into something more closely resembling a complete performer this year, now with 42 points, including 38 in the past 32 games. "There's been adjustment," Kessel conceded in conversation with TSN.ca, while noting that his game had remained the same. "Randy likes to play a certain way so you've got to adjust to his way."
While he's typically kept an even tone with Kessel, Carlyle has successfully engaged 23-year-old James van Riemsdyk
(16 goals), not so successful, however, in his attempts to carve out a place for Mikhail Grabovski
, who has struggled all year.
Aside from the culture shift, the penalty kill has been the most striking team-wide success for the Carlyle coaching staff, which includes Dave Farrish, Scott Gordon, and Greg Cronin. A source of continued frustration in the Ron Wilson era, the Toronto penalty kill has become a dominant entity – Gordon leads the unit – ranked third in the NHL at 87 percent.
A high-flying, risk-taking outfit under Wilson, the Leafs have veered toward a slug-it-out offensive approach under Carlyle and yet still rank fourth in the NHL in offence, averaging more than three goals per game (sans Joffrey Lupul
for all but 10 games). Among the worst defensive outfits in the league a year ago – 29th – they've also improved to the middle of the pack in that respect this season.
Considering the small sample size, it's worth wondering whether this level of success can be maintained next season. The goaltending from James Reimer
and Ben Scrivens
has performed far above expectation, Kadri has found perhaps an unsustainable level of firepower, the penalty kill has been almost unbeatable and offensively the Leafs have benefited from the highest even-strength shooting percentage in the league, a number that is unlikely to repeat itself. Carlyle's allegiance to prominent fourth line toughness – Colton Orr
and Frazer McLaren
– may not be sustainable additionally for 82 games.
With a slew of deserving candidates, Carlyle is unlikely win the Jack Adams Award this season.
MacLean has done a masterful job in Ottawa (until recently) with a host of significant injuries, Bylsma steered Pittsburgh to a near-historic win streak, Therrien has engineered a magnificent comeback in Montreal, Quenneville led an incredible Chicago point streak and Boudreau has impressed in his first full season in Anaheim. But the Leafs coach certainly deserves credit for his part in "earning the respect back for the organization".