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Firing Randy Carlyle a step in the right direction for Maple Leafs, but lots of work remains

The Maple Leafs were right to fire Randy Carlyle, who deserved to be canned long ago. Now the real challenge begins.

Marianne Helm/Getty Images

Whenever an NHL head coach is fired, a heated discussion begins in which fans examine how the blame should be distributed.

Occasionally, a coach is set up to fail and gets a pass from the general public. This more or less happened in Edmonton, where Dallas Eakins was doomed by management's glut of errors. Eakins had his faults, sure, but he wasn't at the root of the Oilers' problems.

Other times, a bench boss is handed a gifted roster, one capable of winning it all on paper, but can't seem to get over the hump. Alain Vigneault in Vancouver and Bruce Boudreau in Washington are prime examples.

Then there's Toronto, where there's plenty of blame to go around.

Maple Leafs general manager Dave Nonis has been the target of criticism during his two-year tenure and most of it has been deserved. Nonis has spent money irresponsibly, let good players slip away and failed to break apart a mediocre core. Head coach Randy Carlyle did little to optimize the talent provided to him and the Leafs became famous for their puck possession woes, awful defense and Mayan-esque collapses under his watch.

Since we're talking about the plight of a sports franchise, the coach got axed first. Carlyle was relieved of his duties on Tuesday, months after signing an extension. He was 91-78-19 in three-plus seasons with Toronto.

"It's never an easy decision to make when changing your leadership," Nonis said, "but our team was not trending in the right direction and we felt an immediate change was necessary."

Yes, firing Carlyle was necessary. It just shouldn't have taken this long. Truth be told, he shouldn't have survived last year and a strong argument can be made that he should've been released after the 2013 playoffs.

Waiting until this week did little more than solidify what we knew long ago: Carlyle was never going to bring Toronto the parade Tim Leiweke mapped out.

Delaying the inevitable also wasted precious time that could've been used to evaluate players under a better, more efficient system. By not acting swiftly, half of 2014-15 was spent playing a flawed brand of hockey that only got worse.

This precipitous fall can be summed up in one telling graph:

Here is a mountain of data that might be characterized as a black diamond. Carlyle had plenty of time to orchestrate a turnaround and he never came close to pulling one off.

Possession stats aren't everything, and they never will be everything, but a plunge this deep is impossible to overcome. You simply can't win in the NHL when you get caved in night in and night out -- even when luck is firmly on your side, as Toronto learned during the lockout shortened 2013 season.

Few (if any) coaches have the ability to turn the Maple Leafs into Corsi darlings, but some could buck the alarming trend illustrated above. Had Carlyle made a positive impact over the course of his tenure -- in other words, done his job well -- it would've likely been reflected in his club's shot differential.

Carlyle disregarded stats that clearly showed the faults in his deployment.

Yet he continued to stifle the fourth line, which in turn exhausted his most valuable forwards. He disregarded stats that clearly showed the faults in his deployment. Younger players weren't developing as expected. His skaters gave up an absurdly high number of shots against and no successful ideas were conceived to mitigate this damning problem.

He made the same mistakes over and over again. And he finally paid the price.

Removing Carlyle is a step in the right direction for Toronto, but it won't do much good if the subsequent changes aren't executed properly. The Leafs remain far from contention and some savvy moves will be needed to give Carlyle's successor a legitimate chance to succeed.

The blue line undoubtedly needs a makeover. Better third and fourth liners need to be acquired. Phil Kessel needs more support on and off the ice. At some point, the goalie situation needs to be addressed.

The list goes on and on.

A good place to start would be firing Nonis, the man responsible for assembling this mediocre product. Perhaps then a revival can begin in earnest.