Brendan Shanahan felt like he had to stop the insanity.
During Randy Carlyle’s tenure behind the Leafs bench, the team was repeating the same mistakes over and over, while expecting a different result.
So with half of the season left to possibly salvage, the long-anticipated trigger was finally pulled, with Carlyle given his walking papers in favour of interim bench boss Peter Horachek.
Indeed, Carlyle was given a reprieve for the squad’s epic post-Olympic collapse last season, earning a two-year contract extension in the summer as opposed to a pink slip.
But despite some minor upgrades to the back end and also the third and fourth lines, by the midway mark of this year’s campaign, it was clear that the habitual lack of cohesion and absence of commitment to defence was still evident. Goaltenders Jonathan Bernier and James Reimer were left to their own devices, forced to try and steal games to have a chance at winning. Night after night, the Leafs were getting outworked and outmuscled.
And, the team was constantly on the losing end of the shot total, particularly in all but one of the seven consecutive road games that preceded Carlyle’s firing.
Shanahan recognized the brief stretch of 10 wins in a dozen games ending in mid-December as an aberration. Although the Leafs president was not at his current post during Toronto’s fall from grace out of a playoff spot last year, he’d heard – and seen – enough.
The first two games with Horachek at the helm have shown marked improvement on the defensive side of the puck. In Horachek’s debut Wednesday, the Leafs held the Capitals to just 26 shots, although they did lose 6-2. Friday’s result was more favourable to Toronto; a 5-2 win over Columbus in which only 20 pucks were directed at Bernier.
Lest Horachek be anointed as an immediate saviour, it’s worth noting that the injury-riddled Blue Jackets are among the league’s bottom-feeders in terms of shots per game. The real litmus test for the Leafs is their four-game western road trip that kicks off Monday night versus the defending Stanley Cup champion Kings.
Should the Leafs fall out of post-season contention, Shanahan may call for a full overhaul and jettison core players such as Phil Kessel and/or Dion Phaneuf.
In any case, Carlyle’s firing was the first step in trying to cleanse this team of its lackadaisical approach to preventing opposing shots, and ultimately, goals.