Now, more than ever, is when the blue and white need their fans to focus less on criticism and more on good old-fashioned support for the team. This is not to suggest we, as fans, aren’t allowed to be frustrated when the team struggles. We all observe things with our own eyes, and like to play armchair coach or General Manager. That’s fine. As you often hear me say, this is all part of the fun of being a fan. We think about line configurations, matchups and possible trades all the time.
It’s in our blood as Leaf fans.
For my part, I’ve been following this franchise for well over fifty seasons. I’ve worked with many players and NHL coaches in a professional capacity, and I’d like to think I have some understanding about a few of the nuances of this sport. But I would never, ever think that I have enough knowledge to truly believe I know anywhere near as much as a coach.
So when Randy Carlyle (or any other experienced NHL coach) makes roster decisions and in-game spur-of-the-moment moves, I fully trust that he is utilizing years and years of experience that I—and most any fan—could and will never have.
Could he make “mistakes”? Of course. But I’ll take Carlyle any day over we fans, however much we may think we know about statistics or anything else. (Trust me, coaches are well aware of all the stats. They may downplay how much they rely on them, but in this day and age, coaching is a combination of experience, psychology, history, roster awareness, and yes, all the accumulated film study and data that coaching staffs pore over every day…)
Through 27 games, the Leafs have played, in my view, a better brand of hockey than they did in the second half of last season. I realize that’s not much of a bar to surpass, but the team is better. I sense the attitude is strong, and while they are a flawed roster and make a lot of mistakes, they usually play hard and try to do the little things needed to win.
That they don’t always succeed is, well, to be expected. They aren’t the ’77 Habs, after all. What NHL team—even the elite squads— win every night, or even play well every night?
That said, on the heels of this mini-stumble, fans naturally wonder about certain moves made by our coach. I don’t question Carlyle. In fact, I think he has done wonders with a still-limited roster. I don’t believe our talent level is all that high—not when I switch channels and watch what I consider to be truly elite NHL teams play. But our roster is OK. Some nice players, some skill, some grit. Maybe a few guys perhaps playing over the head and a few not playing as well as we would have hoped. The Leafs have done OK—better than a lot of us thought, even given this still-small sample size. (And hey, would the Leafs have won against the Jets if Grabovski had scored right after Kessel tied it up early in the second period? Instead the Jets come down the ice and score themselves. Not scoring on the five-on-three didn’t help…)
But I do ask this question: is it time for us to get Jake Gardiner back into the lineup? I know this is, as I keep saying, an experimental year for Carlyle. We’re playing with house money in the sense that no one expected this crew to make the playoffs. Don’t forget, a lot of us forget many fans were on the “tank” bandwagon so we could acquire one of those tremendous-looking for prospects at the draft in June. And I’m sure any one of those top draft-eligible guys would help the Leafs down the road.
Still Morgan Rielly is already on the way, and again, there are some nice pieces here right now.
For now, though, I ask again: waiver considerations aside, is it time for Gardiner?
If you were in Carlyle’s shoes, what other tweaks would you consider? I like Kadri playing where he is right now (less pressure, lower expectations, not facing the best checkers, etc..) but would you move him up? Would you move some other pieces around, just to see if there is a fit?
I know Carlyle is trying to get Grabovski and Kulemin kick-started on offense. Neither has been a constant threat, at least not as much as we would expect for what they’re earning. They’re decent players who are drawing tough assignments, but we still do need a bit more, I think.
As much as anything, this is when Leaf supporters have to show their support. We all know what happened a year ago, and it was not fun for Leaf fans. This has been a fragile organization for years. This year’s team has actually played with more confidence, however, showing the capacity to hold leads—and also an ability to come from behind.
Is this our first “crisis” of a, until now, startlingly impressive (although some would ask, “how did we manage to get this far…good luck, good goaltending have saved us…”) season? A crisis as in, two losses and a tie in our last three games, our first “three- game” (if you include an OT loss) losing streak. And with the suddenly hot Penguins up next (on the backs of their impressive comeback against the Bruins Tuesday night), the Leafs now face a tough game—and a fan reaction that may begin to see a little panic before the team does.
Heck, it was only a game ago that we were thrilled with the comeback against the Penguins. And before that, Carlyle felt his team played about as well as they have all season in Boston. So it is precisely after games like the one in Winnipeg when fans have to stay the course. I’d like to think the Leafs would receive an old-time standing ovation when they hit the ice against Sid and the Penguins on Thursday night.
Personally, I trust management—and Carlyle—to make any adjustments as they see fit. I’ve said here for some time we’ll see Gardiner when injuries mount. We can debate whether he should have already been here by now, but the team has more than survived without him, just as they have survived without Lupul. (We should recall that Gardiner was here last season when the team went south, though he was a bright light.)
Now is the time for the Leafs—the players, Carlyle and Nonis—to prove they are in fact better than last year’s version of the blue and white. Whether that means believing in what they already have and sticking with the status quo, altering the roster somewhat, moving in Gardiner, whatever, let’s play our part as fans.
When times get a bit tough for a team is when they need help more than ever. And now is the time to help make sure 2012-’13 doesn’t finish like 2011-’12.