Maybe it’s just watching the Leafs yet again play late-season games that (to them) mean nothing except as an audition for next year. But at the risk of sounding like a perpetually disgruntled Leaf fan (which, as hopefully most of you know, is not the intended tone of the site) I am a bit confused as to what is happening with the team just now. (Didn’t you feel as though the season was officially “over” when Carlyle was laughing on the bench before the shoot-out? That wouldn’t be the case if they were fighting for something. I mean, it's great that people are relaxed, but it more shows that it just doesn't really matter anymore...)
Maybe it’s more that I just don’t like what I’m seeing with the “new-look” Leafs and it will all have to grow on me.
The Leafs took three points out of four on the weekend, against two very good teams. I should be pleased. They seemed to play their "system" well, though it was hardly inspiring stuff. But I would expect at least that, given that they have fallen out of the playoff race, face zero pressure now and are trying to impress a new coach.
Here’s the problem for me: three months ago we were a fast-skating, move the puck quickly, “sudden offense” kind of team. We played hard and fast most nights, had some jump and scored enough goals to win a fair number of games. Even the perennially lousy penalty-killing was getting better in the new year. There were plenty of issues, I well realize, and we discussed them all here. The Leafs didn’t stand up for one another a ton, and that has been an issue, yes. We did not have real team toughness. They obviously had off and on goaltending and certainly the young, sometimes over-rated defense made too many mistakes. Our first line didn’t always like to back-check but even with all that, the Leafs were, by and large, an entertaining team to watch. And until the awful slump, they were generally OK—and fun to watch most of the time.
We were led to believe this was the kind of team (and style of play), more or less, that was approved, endorsed and supported by Leaf management. Of course, we all know things slid suddenly and very badly at the end of Ron Wilson’s tenure, but after building precisely the kind of team I described above, in came a new coach (which I want to believe was not about “salvaging” this season but a long-term move) with a seemingly different mindset.
We had a Wilson team, or so it seemed, at least, but now we suddenly had Randy Carlyle as the coach.
With a Wilson roster and a Carlyle philosophy, Toronto now seemingly often plays fear-driven hockey, with an emphasis on defensive play. (Maybe I misunderstood his comment, but Carlyle basically said before the New Jersey game Friday night that he wants them to play so conservatively that they limit any possibility of making a mistake.)
This should be fun, eh?
Look, anyone who knows this site also knows I had no patience for Wilson’s public/media persona. It wasn’t necessary and I didn't like it. The guy just didn’t get it when it came to the fan base and the local (albeit sometimes annoying) media. He too often sounded like he had the hardest, most miserable job in the world, when it actually has to be one of the best.
But let’s set that aside. Are we now going to entirely re-write history and try to claim the guy is a lousy NHL coach? I mean, he was not great behind the bench here, and the results speak for themselves. I’m not the leader of the “vote for Wilson” campaign, but still, the guy can coach. He did just fine in Anaheim, Washington and San Jose, including some playoff success. Here, not so much, obviously. But let’s not try to say that the team under Wilson had no system, weren’t coached or didn’t care about playing hard, or even being tough. Heck, Wilson benched guys, including Kessel, at various points in his tenure behind the Leaf bench, when he thought they weren’t pulling their weight. He was not a “soft” coach. Now, I will say this: I’ve never bought the whole Wilson/Burke “blue and white disease” and entitlement thing. I think that was bogus from the get-go, to make themselves seem like saviours. And we can debate Wilson's decisions around goaltending, his special teams failures, etc. But Wilson’s teams, even when they were lousy, usually played hard, at least.
At the end of his time here, yes, they struggled badly. But every team that loses its confidence looks disorganized and like they don’t know what they’re doing. Some very good NHL coaches have been caught in that vortex and when their teams couldn’t get out of it, they were dismissed, just like Wilson.
Again, my point is not to canonize Wilson. I’m sure he did bruise some players (Schenn, we hear now…) but we weren’t complaining as much when Lupul and Kessel were setting the league on fire in the first half of the season and everyone kept saying how well the Leafs were doing even though they were “the youngest team in the league”.
My point is simply, we’ve been pointing our guns at the ex-coach, when there are some people higher up the food chain that we should be talking about. I’ll post more on that soon, but for now, I will simply say this: I’m sure Carlyle, a guy who has won a Cup and everything, is a good coach. I believe he is. He plays the tough-guy role, wants rough hockey, lots of fights, loves match-ups and a tight defensive structure. Great. He may be a perfect tonic for what the Leafs need. (Most of the league plays defensively, so we may as well be as boring as everyone else, I guess. Fans won’t be complaining about Tampa’s boring “system” any more, not after watching the Leafs under Carlyle.)
But with this roster right now, goodness, we are not very exciting. Not many shots on goal, are there? Sure, there were some enjoyable moments in the Ranger game Saturday night. And yes, the “checking” line of Connolly, Steckel and Crabb (our “third” line, as our fourth line doesn’t play any more, it seems…) had a nice game. But the night before, we got to watch Steckel plays about 23 minutes—Joey Crabb almost that much. Meanwhile, Phil Kessel played less than that, and about the same as Tim Connolly against the Devils. If this is the way it’s going to be, well, count me among the un-impressed. (Against New York, Crabb played 18 minutes, Steckel 19, Lombardi 23 and Connolly 21. Kessel was back up to 25, which made more sense…)
With those kinds of minutes, that line should be putting up some offensive numbers, shouldn’t they?
I’m prepared for people to say, “c’mon Michael, who cares about ice time? Winning is the most important thing. Carlyle knows what he’s doing. He won a Cup…”
By all means, as always, share your views. That’s what this forum is for. But that fact that a guy has won a Cup (with an outstanding team) doesn’t necessarily mean he’s a great coach. Over time Carlyle didn’t adjust in Anaheim, and that’s part of the reason he was fired. The team tuned him out. That said, plenty of really good coaches get fired. It happens all the time. Carlyle won’t be the last. And as I said above, I happen to think the guy is a good coach.
(Just because a guy has not won a Cup, does not mean is not a good NHL coach. Alain Vigneault is a pretty good coach, I’d say. So is Barry Trotz. So are Lindy Ruff, Dave Tippett and Bruce Boudreau. So was Ron Wilson. Marc Crawford won a Stanley Cup, but I wouldn’t want him coaching the Leafs. Is Bob Hartley a great coach because he won a Cup with a fantastic team? I don’t know. I’m simply pointing out that having—or not having—a Cup on your resume doesn’t convince me much one way or the other.
I hope Carlyle is the answer—or at least part of it. I know the roster should be better next season, infused with all the young talent we keep being told about down on the farm. But whoever plays here next season, while winning is, yes, important, I sure hope I’m not watching our third-line guys playing 23 minutes a night. And if they are, I hope we’re so good that the third line is Kessel, Lupul and some superstar rookie center…