Leafs Can’t (or Won’t) Bail Out Carlyle

By HOWARD BERGER

TORONTO (Mar. 24) – Because it is so catchy and memorable, hockey fans in this city continue to evoke the Brian Burke “18-wheeler” sob whenever Toronto Maple Leafs appear to be in a death-spiral. Spend just a few moments on-line and I guarantee you will find innumerable references to the comment Burke made in Montreal on Mar. 3, 2012 – the day he hired Randy Carlyle to replace Ron Wilson as coach of the Blue and White.

The indelible remark, however, does not apply to the current Leaf nosedive. As I’ve pounded on here repeatedly in the past ten days, the Collapse of 2014 is a one-man act… solely the production of Carlyle for making among the most lamentable decisions in the post-expansion history of the Maple Leafs. Call that an exaggeration if you wish, but remind me of a similar ruling by any coach of a competitive Leafs team since 1967 that has so apparently destroyed an entire season.

If you’ve been hanging around this corner, you know exactly what I’m referring to: Carlyle telling reporters, without apparent shame or remorse, that he allowed Jonathan Bernier – already suffering from a groin injury – to choose whether he would play against Los Angeles Kings, at Staples Center, Mar. 13. L.A., of course, is the team that dealt Bernier to the Leafs last summer; he would have been half-dead before refusing the assignment. Still, Carlyle deferred to his No. 1 goalie and the Maple Leafs, as a direct result, have lost five in a row and blown a seven-point playoff cushion in the Eastern Conference – now clinging to the second Wild Card spot, just one point ahead of Washington.

(For those who forget, Leafs were a sizzling 11-2-2 before the Winter Olympics, third-hottest team behind Boston and St. Louis. After a bit of a speed-wobble when the NHL resumed, Leafs and Bernier knocked off Anaheim at Honda Centre; the Ducks, with 99 points, are 25-7-4 this season at home. Prior to Bernier aggravating his groin injury, the Leafs were solidly in contention for second place in the Atlantic Division).

YET ANOTHER EARLY STRUGGLE BY JAMES REIMER FORCED DREW McINTYRE (RIGHT) INTO SUNDAY’S GAME AT NEW JERSEY – LEAFS LOSING THEIR FIFTH IN A ROW, 3-2 TO THE DEVILS. TORONTO HAS BLOWN 10 POINTS IN THE STANDINGS SINCE RANDY CARLYLE ALLOWED JONATHAN BERNIER TO PLAY INJURED AT LOS ANGELES. McINTYRE THUS BECAME THE 61st MAN TO PLAY GOAL FOR THE MAPLE LEAFS SINCE THEIR LAST STANLEY CUP TITLE IN 1967. ADAM HUNGER GETTY IMAGES/NHL.COM

Perhaps you are unaware of Carlyle’s quote. On Twitter, I’m being asked: “How was Carlyle supposed to know Bernier was injured?” For the benefit of these scholars, here is a paragraph lifted from the Toronto Sun website after practice last Monday: “(Bernier) had a little bit of a strain [in San Jose] and it did not bother him, he said he felt fine, and then when we got to L.A., he felt it was bothering him to the point that I was going to question him whether he was going to go,” Carlyle said. “I said, make the decision whether you’re going or not. After the first period, he said he did not feel comfortable, that it was feeling worse.”

There it is: Carlyle told Bernier to “make the decision.” Can you imagine Scotty Bowman, Mike Babcock or any decorated coach in modern league history allowing his No. 1 goalie – already injured – to choose whether or not he wanted to start a game at any time, let alone a month before the Stanley Cup tournament? It just wouldn’t happen. A coach with a firm grip on his team would have said to Bernier, “Look, I know it’s tough, but you’ll play here in Los Angeles next season. Right now, we need you to rest and try to be ready for our next game. If you’re still hurting, we’ll wait some more. We need you healthy for the playoffs.”

Given there was a 2½-day gap between L.A. and the Leafs ensuing match – Sunday afternoon in Washington – it would have have been especially prudent for Carlyle to hold Bernier back. Instead, he committed the cardinal coaching sin by washing his hands of a critical decision. And, the grievous results are there for everyone to see.

Was this a firing offense?

That isn’t for me to determine. David Nonis understands exactly what happened in Los Angeles and how it perhaps irreversibly altered the Leafs’ promising season. Besides, long before the Bernier faux-pas, I wrote repeatedly in this space that Carlyle will not survive a playoff absence this spring. I’m writing it again now.

Which brings up another point: Carlyle is not, in fact, Nonis’s coach… he was hired by Burke. And you’d have to think that Nonis – at some point – would wish to select his own man.

Methinks Randy Dandy has given him one hell of an excuse.

FROM LEAFS-TV LATE IN SUNDAY’S GAME: NOT SURE IF THIS KID IS TAKING A PHOTO FOR POSTERITY BUT HE MIGHT BE WISE TO HIT THE “SAVE” BUTTON. IT’S A CLOSE-UP.

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