Leafs no better since coaching change
TORONTO — Randy Carlyle made his debut as the head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs with a 3-1 win against the Montreal Canadiens on March 3. Exactly five weeks later, he is going back to where he started for the season finale.
The question is has anything changed since then?
The Leafs, who were in 12th place in the Eastern Conference standings and five points out of a playoff spot when Carlyle replaced Ron Wilson behind the bench, are now in 13th place and 10 points back. They had lost 10 of their final 14 games under Wilson and have now lost 11 of 17 for Carlyle.
For Carlyle, goal scoring is down to 2.23 per game, while their season average is 2.79 and is still 10th in the league. Despite Carlyle’s work, they have trouble defending (31.2 shots allowed per game), killing penalties (78 per cent success rate) and keeping the puck out of its own net (3.41 goals per game). All of these numbers are the same or worse than they were for Wilson.
Carlyle does not disagree with any of this. He understands that the same problems that were plaguing the team before his arrival continue to pop up on a regular basis. Maybe that is a personnel problem. Or maybe this transformation is going to take more time than he ever imagined.
“I think that there’s obviously some work to be done from a coaching standpoint,” he said. “We’re trying to create a hockey club that can play somewhat of a different style than what they were previously. I don’t know if you can say the results were where we wanted them, but I think at times we’ve displayed that we have the ability to do that, and I think there’s an adjustment period that’s taking place here that’s one where there’s an understanding of what’s expected.”
Carlyle has stressed the importance of playing responsible hockey, with an emphasis on backchecking and competing hard in one-on-one battles for the puck. That starts at practice, where he has brought a boot-camp mentality — players traded their skates for running shoes and jogged around the rink on Friday — to game preparation.
“There’s a template that we’re trying to create and we’ve done it for stretches and we’ve gotten away from it,” he said. “That’s more important to me right now than anything, that the players, when they leave and go their way, that there’s going to be an understanding of what’s transpired is only the tip of the iceberg on our expectations.”
The question is that when players leave at the end of the season, which ones will be coming back?
With the exception of goaltender Jonas Gustavsson and defenceman Joey Crabb, all of the players on the 23-man roster are either signed for next year or restricted in their contract status. But when a team misses the playoffs, changes are always made.
General manager Brian Burke says Carlyle likes “a rough team” that initiates contact and intimidates with its size as much as its skill. Right now, Toronto does not have that. Phil Kessel is a talented scorer who is three goals away from reaching 40 on the season. But like most of the players, he is somewhat one-dimensional in his approach to game.
“There are some things that this team does very well,” said Carlyle. “If you watch the way they can move the puck around in the offensive zone and attack the blue-line and some of the goals that they have scored is surprising. I don’t know if I’ve had teams that can move the puck that effectively and create scoring chances in those areas.
“Where in other areas, the defensive side of it, we seem to freeze up when we’re in defensive zone coverage.”
When asked if he had the personnel to get the team into the playoffs, Carlyle was not exactly sure how to answer.
“I think there are times where they have proven they can and there are times when they have proven they can’t,” he said. “For you to ask that question about personnel, I think it’s a little premature . . . to me, I don’t think you make statements about your team’s ability to make the playoffs in the summer, in the spring or in the fall.
“I think you go out and earn it.”
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