Thomas Wolfe said you can't go home again, a theory the Anaheim Ducks are trying to disprove with coach Randy Carlyle.
Last summer, after yet another failed attempt to win the Stanley Cup with a team in the heart of its window to contend, the Ducks removed a very successful regular-season coach in Bruce Boudreau and replaced him with Carlyle, who was at the helm a decade ago when the Ducks won the only championship in team history.
Carlyle is on to Act 3 of his NHL coaching career, after spending parts of four seasons behind the bench of the Toronto Maple Leafs. With a Leaf team and organization in transition, Carlyle might have been the wrong man at the wrong time for Toronto. However, he has been the perfect fit in Anaheim, a team that has relied on a handful of old-school principles to get to the third round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, where they are down 2-1 in their series against the Nashville Predators.
Carlyle, for example, is scrupulous about getting the matchups he wants. But where many coaches in the modern NHL are content to match defence pairs against other teams' top lines, Carlyle actually uses shadows. So in the second round against the Edmonton Oilers, he had Ryan Kesler skating practically side-by-side with Connor McDavid for the entire series. For Oilers' executive Wayne Gretzky, this brought back flashbacks to an earlier era when he had to deal with the likes of Steve Kasper (The Friendly Ghost) following him on the ice.
Carlyle also believes in calling faceoff plays. A set piece, off a defensive-zone draw, was Ryan Getzlaf's 110-foot breakaway pass to Rickard Rakell. The play came from the bench and effectively turned the series around, after the Ducks had fallen two games behind the Oilers.
But more than any other quality, Ducks' general manager Bob Murray brought Carlyle back because of his calm demeanour. In the deciding game against Edmonton, Anaheim fell behind early – which might have been a catastrophe in other years, when the Ducks had a well-earned reputation for coming up small on home ice, in series-clinching games. But Carlyle kept the team on an even emotional keel and eventually the Ducks prevailed.
"He's a combination of keeping it light, joking around and emphasizing we should be having fun – and also being super competitive and intense," Ducks defenceman Kevin Bieksa said. "It's the way a lot of us approach the game. There's a time and place to have fun. In the dressing room, before a practice, you want it to be a comfortable environment and jovial. And then, when it's time to work, it's time to work."
After leaving Toronto, Carlyle bought a home in Encinitas, Calif., near San Diego, where he eventually plans to retire. Since it's too far to commute, he's rented that home to a family from Kitchener, Ont., and is renting a place of his own in Anaheim. Coaching can be a precarious and uncertain profession, although in his two separate stints, Carlyle holds the record as the Ducks coach with the most wins, a record of 319-205-74. He has 410 career regular-season wins and passed Jacques Demers in the final game of the regular season to move into 33rd place.
Over his career, Carlyle has tried to stay true to what he believes in, while adapting to changing times.
"More than anything, these players don't have any fear any more," Carlyle said in a recent interview. "When I was a player, if you ever got called into the general manager's office, your hands would get all sweaty. Now, they've all got security.
"If you don't adjust to what's new or what's working, you're going to get lost by the wayside."
Carlyle will tell you the perception of the Ducks around the league may not accurately reflect the current incarnation of the team.
"We transitioned some youth into our team this year," Carlyle said, "but when everyone sees the Ducks, they label it Ryan Getzlaf-Corey Perry. So it was kind of like coming home, going back into the building, where all the same people work. But the team, it's been a work in progress all year."
The changes have carried over into the playoffs, where the Ducks have muddled along despite injuries that might have crippled a lesser team. They began the playoffs without two injured defensive mainstays, Cam Fowler and Sami Vatanen. Now, Bieksa and Patrick Eaves are on the sidelines.
Through it all, Carlyle has had to rely on younger players. Second-year pro Nick Ritchie has two game-winning goals in the past 10 days. Rookie Ondrej Kase moved up to play on Getzlaf's line for Game 2 of the Nashville series.
Once in a while, Carlyle likes to throw a surprise at his kids, just to keep things interesting.
"The younger generation, they laugh at my music because I'm a classic-rock guy," he said. "To stay current, you have to get to their level and understand them. If, all of a sudden, you come up with something from Eminem – and put that in a pump tape – they get it."
How does Carlyle keep up with new trends in coaching?
"I steal," he says, with a laugh. "I'm a thief. I just watch what other people are doing. You learn from everyone else. Everybody steals the same power play. Everybody steals the same defensive-zone coverage. You can bring your own little unique twist to it, but really, the staple is already created. I can guarantee you, when you do your pre-scout for tonight's game, there isn't a defensive-zone faceoff play they'll use that we won't use, too. They're all the same."