Change is coming at some point down the road for the Toronto Maple Leafs, on the roster and the coaching staff.
The immediate future belongs to Peter Horachek, who was named interim head coach Wednesday morning in the aftermath of the firing of Randy Carlyle. There could be a plethora of changes before the March 2 trade deadline and after the season, but the next phase is one of discovery.
Who are these Maple Leafs, and what can Horachek get out of them?
“One thing we can change is a resolve and an attitude,” Horachek said Tuesday. “We have control over our own attitude and how we work and how we (approach) our day-to-day business.”
For all the off-season talk about culture change, the Leafs have fallen into some of the same bad habits. General manager Dave Nonis ultimately pointed to consistency as the biggest culprit for Carlyle’s firing.
That shouldn’t be a surprise as nine of last season’s top 10 scorers and both goaltenders came back this year. Defenceman Stephane Robidas was brought in and made an alternate captain in an effort to change the mix a little bit, but at the midway point of the season it was clear it wasn’t enough.
Before president Brendan Shanahan and Nonis tinker with the roster ahead of the trade deadline, they’ll see what Horachek can do. When Carlyle was dismissed, the Leafs said Horachek and Steve Spott would be behind the bench for the next game against the Washington Capitals.
Horachek ran the first practice of the post-Carlyle era and then Wednesday’s morning skate. While the team was still on the ice, the Leafs confirmed Horachek was the interim head coach.
That made all the sense in the world after Horachek replaced Kevin Dineen as coach of the Panthers and worked the rest of last season.
“I think he did an excellent job with the Panthers last year,” said Washington Capitals coach Barry Trotz, Horachek’s mentor and longtime boss in Nashville. “He got them quite relevant and got them going in the right direction.”
Horachek worked as an assistant under Trotz for the Predators for 10 years and considers him like a brother. It’s only fitting that Trotz will be on the other bench Wednesday night for Horachek’s second go-’round as an interim coach in the NHL.
In a phone interview Tuesday before the Capitals flew to Toronto, Trotz called this a great opportunity for Horachek and endorsed him as “head-coach material.”
“He’s knowledgeable and he’s got good balance in terms of player relationships, systems, all that,” Trotz said. “He’s disciplined, he demands accountability, but he can communicate. Some guys demand accountability and can’t communicate. He demands accountability and he gets respect because he communicates.”
Carlyle was demanding, but one of his drawbacks was a communication disconnect with players. That’s an old-school mentality that can work to a point, but also wears thin with players who want to know why they’re sitting or getting less ice time.
Unlike Spott, who’s a popular players’ coach, Horachek isn’t a polar opposite of Carlyle. The 54-year-old is more of a hybrid.
“I would say he’s fair,” Trotz said. “Players will recognize that he’s very fair in his decision-making and his doling out of ice time and all that. He’s not afraid to tell it like it is when it’s needed and he’s not adverse to putting his arm around a guy.”
In his first meeting with reporters after Carlyle was dismissed, Horachek used the word “attitude” eight times and “resolve” four times to describe what he wanted to see from players. He wants the team to be better prepared for games and practices with sights still set on qualifying for the playoffs.
“There’s not a sense of urgency because we’re in eighth spot (in the East) and in the wild-card race,” Horachek said. “It’s a sense of urgency because that’s the way hockey is played. This league has parity and it’s a good league with everybody around, and we have to have a purpose and a sense of urgency.”
Players have no choice but to assume some responsibility for that sense of urgency now. But Horachek might be able to jump-start some things as well, and he has an impressive minor-league resume to draw from.
Before moving up to the NHL on Trotz’s staff, Horachek led teams to the playoffs in the Colonial Hockey League, International Hockey League, East Coast Hockey League and American Hockey League. Horachek’s Orlando Solar Bears won the IHL title in 2001.
“He’s had head-coaching experience at every level, he’s had success at every level,” Trotz said. “Having some brief experience with the pressures of head-coaching in the National Hockey League, he did that in Florida for a while, and then obviously being in that fishbowl in Toronto, I think he’s very prepared.”
The Stoney Creek, Ont., native is also prepared for the attention that comes with that Toronto fishbowl, Trotz said. Until this year, the Maple Leafs did not let assistant coaches speak to the media, but on at least a handful of occasions from training camp on either Horachek or Spott took Carlyle’s place to talk on a given day.
Trotz thinks it might’ve been a bit overwhelming for Horachek if he went right from a decade in Nashville to the centre of the hockey universe. But the Panthers experience and half a season on staff with the Leafs built up a tolerance to the spotlight.
“I think he has a good grasp of what the demands are there,” Trotz said. “He’s very good with the media, he’s very personable, he tells it like it is. That’s what you’re going to get with Peter. You get an honest approach. From a media standpoint and from a player standpoint you’re going to know where he stands.”
That may have been an issue with Carlyle, who had the ability of rubbing players the wrong way. It’s impossible to forget Mikhail Grabovski’s comments on the way out, and the coach’s “OK, just OK” review of James Reimer’s play in one game last season in Detroit was emblematic of a strained relationship.
On Tuesday, star winger Phil Kessel didn’t sugarcoat that his relationship with Carlyle wasn’t always sunshine and roses.
“It was fine,” Kessel said. “I think every relationship has its ups and downs. Obviously, I’m not excited to see him go or anything like that. I’m disappointed because it’s a reflection on us as a group that we didn’t get it done.”
For now, coaches have got to coach and players have got to play.
“Whoever coaches, we’re going to play our hearts out, play for each other,” Kessel said. “Obviously we want to win and we want to stay together as a group. We’ve got a great group here and we want to win together.”