Custom Search

How the Maple Leafs’ (and Carlyle’s) ‘experiment’ year can end well….

One thing has become clear to me during the first 22 games of this 2012-’13 NHL mini-schedule when it comes to the Maple Leafs: this season is not really about this season.  In fact, my sense is that for Randy Carlyle, while his “grand scheme” is under construction, this has been, by design, a season of—and for—absolute experimentation.

What do I mean?

Well, no one, least of all Carlyle, expected the F-troop squad he took on late last season - with their chins hanging down just above the ground - to be contending for a Stanley Cup this season.  So he is using these regular-season games merely as a measuring stick—a barometer to help determine what else he and the organization have to do to get this team ready to compete for something, well, more serious.

Given that the Cup is not the realistic objective this spring (have you seen the Hawks plays?), yes, we could, for example, be playing Mike Komisarek right now on defense because he has an expensive contract, but Carlyle has something else in mind.  He believes he knows what he has in Komisarek, and it’s not likely the hard-working veteran will get “better’ in the years ahead.  So, he sits.

Too, we could have plucked a veteran free-agent goalie at a bargain-basement price before the season got underway, but I sense the coach wanted to see for himself, first-hand, exactly what he had—and who might be able to, in the years ahead, deliver exactly what Carlyle needs. So though we had "unproven" goalies in Reimer and Scrivens, Carlyle likely figured, “let’s see what I’ve got.  Might as well find out".

What about that minor-leaguer, Mike Kostka (who Carlyle probably barely knew existed before this year)?  Same thing.  Kostka looked great with the Marlies, so let’s see if he can play at this level.  If not, what have the Leafs lost, in a season that began with zero expectations anyway.

You can go down the list.  Colton Orr worked his tail off to try and “re-invent” himself.  Besides fulfilling an organizational promise that had apparently been made to him, how did it hurt Carlyle to give the veteran winger, known primarily as a fighter before, extended playing time?  It hasn’t, yet.

We have lots of wingers in the system but when Nonis picked up Frazer McLaren, the newcomer did not go to the Marlies.  He got a shot right away with the big club.  I’m sure that’s what Carlyle wanted.

And Mark Fraser, for the most part a career minor-league player, earned a roster spot—and he’s still here.  He has demonstrated he is a “Carlyle” kind of player.

My point is, Carlyle knew he had lots of time left on his own contract, and the organization was not going to upset the apple cart any further than it already had in replacing Brian Burke at an admittedly awkward time.  Carlyle is secure—and knows what he needs to get from this team to compete at a high level.  Of course he is shooting for the sky this season (any coach does) but even if the Leafs don’t make the playoffs, they are learning not only Carlyle’s “system” but the requirements for doing the job he wants done. 

Most significantly though, regardless of his 'x’s and o’s' (which is not a complicated system), it is the work ethic that has been inculcated in this roster that matters most.  Every "system" is just a slight variation on another.  But the willingness to compete for pucks, block shots, fight, and stand up for one another is an attitude that has precious little to do with any particular system of play.  It’s more about heart and desire than anything else.

That said, those characteristics, which are obviously a huge part of the  attitude a player competes with, really come to the forefront when you are in close games.  And when you’re making simple passes and safe, smart plays, that approach keeps you in games. 

Yes, character matters a lot in Carlyle’s world.  And that’s a big part of what he is assessing this season.  Beyond physical skill, he wants to discover who has the willingness to do the hard little things that win games and, as a result, help create that winning atmosphere which inevitably leads to dressing room chemistry.

From there comes success.  And success breeds more success.

So while some fans are worried about how he configures his forward lines, why certain guys aren’t getting more power play time, his line match-ups, zone starts for particular players and why Kostka and Orr are playing so much, those things are not bothering me in the least.  I’m not a coach.  I don’t have a pulse on this team.  He’s the coach.  He does.

Carlyle has a grander plan in mind.  I fully expect Jake Gardiner and Morgan Rielly to be here next season.  Carlyle loves guys with Fraser’s spunk and smarts (not to mention true, old-fashioned toughness, which is way more than just dropping the gloves…) so I expect Fraser will have a key role going forward as well.  I don’t think many other guys are irreplaceable on defense, or untouchable on the trade market, but I do think Phaneuf will still be here for a long time, whatever his flaws.  That’s a core group of four defensemen right there.  Injuries are always part of the game and nothing is guaranteed, and you need a lot of depth on defense to be successful come playoff time.  But that’s a start.

That means that next season, Gunner and Franson could be here or he could be gone. They may be part of the “top-six”, but who knows?  Will Holzer be the better match to play with Phaneuf?  Does Kostka fit down the road?  What about the young defensemen currently playing under Eakins with the Marlies?

And it’s no different on the forward lines.  My guess is Carlyle is not a coach who falls in love with his players.  Meaning, he is always looking to make the team better. If you do what he asks, and do the job laid out really well, you’ll play—probably a lot.  If not, it’s next man up.  That’s how Carlyle has handled injuries this season.  Reimer’s out?  Next guy (Scrivens) goes in.  Gardiner isn't ready?  There are lots of other guys to fight for his minutes.  Lupul misses significant time and Frattin steps in and, JVR moves up.  The team really doesn’t miss a beat.

Grabovski being used primarily as a checker?  Just  part of the plan—for now.  It could change, if necessary.  But it’s a test for down the road, too, to see where Grabovski can fit, as needed.  Maybe he becomes a guy Carlyle relies on for more offense.  Maybe he will have a career here as a high-end ‘hybrid’ center, like a smaller Bobby Holik.  We’ll see. Maybe he’ll be traded to bring in players that will fill other needs.

There is no real risk this season.  Expectations, let’s be honest, were miniscule.  We were coming off nine seasons of misery.  Burke was fired on the eve of the new season.  Many just wanted to see the team ‘tank’ so we could grab another high pick in what is projected to be a really good draft crop this coming summer.

But that was not in the cards for Carlyle, not that that kind of thinking ever is for coaches or the immensely competitive individuals who play hockey at this level.  He had to drive this team to another level in terms of effort and attitude.  He needed to find a way to put his players, individually, in a place where they had the best opportunity to succeed and then see how they responded.  As a result, to this point at least, the team has had success, relatively speaking—because of the aforementioned change in attitude, and because individuals were put in the best chance to achieve individual success.

The goal of course, is long-term team success.  Being a contender every season.  Forget we fans for now and what we may "want":  this season is simply an audition for the coach. (If you add the time Carlyle had behind the Leaf bench last season and what will be played this year, that still totals less than a full NHL season for him...)

Do the Leafs need some pieces to become a legitimate contender for something more than a lowly playoff spot and a first-round exit?  Of course.  But as I’ve said here for years, and maybe especially this season, the Eastern Conference is wide open, with flawed rosters all around.  The Leafs are in the mix for a playoff run.

That said, this season does not have to end in a playoff berth for it to be successful, as long as Carlyle will get the insider (real “insider”, not the media kind) “intelligence” he has been seeking by giving all the different guys who have spent time with the Leafs a chance to show what they’ve got.  Again, he is building for the future, but not some future five years off.  That’s not necessary. Yes, it’s important for Nonis to think long-term, but this team can also position itself to be an impact team by next season in the Eastern Conference. 

And that’s why things can be accelerated a bit by making the playoffs this season.  Because if they do, then all those young players will get a chance to really see what NHL playoff hockey is about.  The grind, how space and time are hard to find, how tough the checking is.  That’s when flaws are really exposed, and let’s be honest, our flaws have not been exposed this season on a consistent basis.

No, a playoff spot is not necessary but it would go a long way toward establishing a winning culture here.  It doesn’t matter, in a sense, whether all these same players are back next year.  In fact, in today’s NHL that is unlikely.  While some significant continuity is important, of course, change is probably required to be a truly elite squad.  But we are slowly getting there.  And the fact that Carlyle has looked at this season as an experiment—and will have all summer to assess the pros and cons of what he has seen—is a very good thing.


  1. MIchael,

    I guess if I had to, I would characterize myself as a big picture guy. I hope that the Leafs someday win the Stanley Cup. In my lifetime would be a good thing too. I could really care less about a playoff berth here or there. They are pretty meaningless to me in the end, I am getting older and well, less patient with this ship of fools. I do not in anyway blame myself. I am not asking for anything that a fan of Tampa, Detroit, Montreal, Chicago, Boston or New York, New Jersey or Carolina was not able to have. The fact that most fans would relish a playoff game, frankly, makes me sad. The bar of expectations continues to drop in Toronto. We would now be happy as a group to make the playoffs and get our asses kicked. A great band from the East Coast, wrote in a song, 'Its not the band I hate, its their fans', give a listen to Sloan if you haven't already, they have some great songs.

    To be honest, I am more than a little disappointed in you. You are always more positive than I might like, but you are usually positive. To have you of all people writing about the demise and futility of the season, with 26 games remaining, makes me contemplate the totality of the universe. Where can we turn now that you have joined the dark side?

    It makes me feel very frustrated that another season without a Cup is so obviously upon us. It just seems so terribly early to be thinking of next year, as I have always had to do as a Leafs fan. Terribly, terribly early. Perhaps that is why I take such pride in being honest about the team I love, it distracts me from the inevitability of being a fan of the Maple Leafs. I long for a someday that never comes.

    Thank you for making me look up the definition to a word in your post. At least I can say I learned something today, and you always say that I never look on the bright side.

  2. I got a kick out of your post, Jim. I well relate to your frustration as a Leaf fan that the bar is so low these past many years. And yes, just making the playoffs is far from good enough. The expectations have to be a lot higher, for sure.

    But I do sense Carlyle knows what he's doing, and is thinking beyond this season- while obviously still trying to coach to win every night...

  3. I think you've hit the nail on the head on this article, Michael! As they say on the Marlies, 'every game is a tryout'...

    What you've suggested helps all the decisions we've seen 'make sense'. I believe that Carlyle wants to know who will really 'buy in' to his system and to find out what they've got to offer. When all is said and done, a number of players who have been given a chance this season will, at the very least, increase their value on the trade market because of all the exposure. At best, we will have a clear view of which players are 'untouchable' in the big picture, because they have that 'something' that Carlyle wants in his team, even if we might not fully understand what they bring to the table.

    Just because the media creates a stir about Komisarek, in light of the lack of success he has enjoyed while in Toronto, it may well be that his good play to start the season might be part of the reason he's sitting right now... maybe Randy wants to keep him! What if he can become all we hoped was possible when we got him and misused him under Wilson?

    Maybe that's why he's not rushing Gardiner back from the concussion... maybe Eakins can create a more complete player in the meantime (out of the media glare) and a few more tools in the box might just make us even more ecstatic about his future! Perhaps even a couple more weeks will help breed more success on the Marlies for all the rest of the prospects... especially with Morgan Rielly likely to appear within the next couple of weeks for his Marlie training session.

    All in all, I think our future will be that much brighter with the manner in which this season is being managed (coached!)... As your comments would suggest, we may just be experiencing the longest (2013-2014) pre-season in league history! A run of games in the playoffs would just be the unexpected gift we wouldn't think was possible with the way the season has been used.

    Your insights have brought greater hope for the future, because I believe you are right on the mark and I hope the Leafs "stay the course" and only make the moves that fit the future identity of this team!

  4. Thank you, InTimeFor62. I'm not trying to paint an unreasonably hopeful picture of what's happening. But I do believe that Carlyle knows what he wants and this short season is an extension of what started when he took over a year ago.

    As I said in today's post, unless my math is off, by the end of this season, he still won't have coached a "full" 82-game season with the Leafs yet. So there is a lot of assessing going on and this is still a trial period, in a sense.

    Yes, as Jim (somewhat frustrated and tongue-in-cheek) above implied, it would obviously be better if we had serious aspirations of something special happening this season, but that may be a ways off yet....

  5. I pretty much agree with you, Michael.

    I've said from the start of the year that I don't expect us to make the playoffs, and I don't consider it an essential marker to indicate a successful year. If we do make them, great, particularly for the experience it will give our very young team. But it's next year I'm really interested in. It's ironic - we aren't even halfway through this "season", and I'm already saying "wait until next year"!

    To Jim's post - it's not pessimistic, it's optimistic!

    As Carlyle keeps saying, Leafs are a work in progress. He's molding this group of players into what he wants the team to be, ultimately. It's been fun to watch, for the most part. I agree that he's getting a sense of exactly what each player can do. We're having an unusual run of no injuries to defencemen, so Komi and Liles are sitting for now. I expect we'll see one or both before long, although I see the Komi trade talk is starting up.

    For some reason, I'm not so sure about Gardiner. He's not a hitter or an intimidating physical presence, so who does he replace? How badly do we need his offensive skills? Are we having so much trouble clearing the puck out of our zone (most nights)? I'm not saying he isn't an NHL caliber guy, I'm just wondering where he fits at the moment.

    I agree that the groundwork that's being laid this year should show positive results next year, and even more so in years to come. It's glass half-full for me, and I'm humming "The Future's So Bright I Gotta Wear Shades".

  6. I think we both know, Gerund O', that the real test will come when we do make the playoffs (this year or next). Then we will really assess how the team is developing- and pick at the flaws we see on the roster.

    But until thing, we are allowed to hope that the latest re-build will bring results!

  7. Nice to see some perspective instead of the usual "OMG Carlyle is an idiot he doesn't know how to coach hockey!" People are crying about Gardiner not being up yet, but he could very well still be suffering from his concussion. People whine about how much time the 4th line gets, but those guys are plugs. They are doing their job: plugging a hole. I'm not much for fighters, but it's fine for now. And if Kadri says he likes having Orr on his wing, who are we to complain? There is very little downside to what Carlyle is doing, especially when you read about how professional Liles and Komisarek are being: no complaining, just waiting their turn, being ready. A team needs 10 NHL-capable defensemen for the playoffs. It's not a waste or misuse of assets to have those guys on the roster but not playing. Unless the Leafs go into a big losing streak, it's all good. And even then, this season is a mulligan. Big picture all the way.

  8. I'm with you, Leaf in Habland, we need to be 10-deep (as I've said here many times) on the blueline if we ever hope to be serious about a Cup run. Defensemen go down and you need serious depth. The playoffs are, in hockey terms, a war of attrition. We seem to have that depth, at least in terms of guys who can legitimately play at the NHL level.

    Of course we'd all love to win right now, this season. But that is not the hand Carlyle was dealt. I'm not saying he's Toe Blake, simply that he gets my "patience" (and I've been waiting 45 years) because I see at least what he is trying to do. Thanks Leaf in Habland.

  9. Great read, Michael! Thank you. I was shocked by the online criticism of Randy Carlyle's personnel and ice-time decisions. Who knows better than a Stanley Cup winning coach who sees the players everyday?

    Your explanation of his motivation is very perceptive. I hate losing to Montreal and Ottawa but this is a year about development and the "process". It appears to me the Leafs are now a mature organization where the best players play and the others wait for an opportunity - no matter how much they get paid or their reputation. Good things are happening in Leafland!

    Rob living in Ktown

  10. I don't for a moment dismiss the notion that fans have the right to assess and debate what our coach does, Anon (Ktown Rob). That's an inherent part, it seems, of being a fan. And it's fun. That's OK. No coach is "perfect" in his hockey decisions- whether it's the day-to-day stuff, his personnel decisions or his in-game judgments on the fly.

    But I want to give Carlyle the time to see what he can build. I'm not interested in a lot of talk like we used to have here (the past four plus years). I'm interested in results. And yes, the sooner the better. But it will take time.

    I'm not prone after all these years to be sold a bill of goods by this organization. I'm as skeptical as anyone. But I do see something happening. Let's see where it goes. And if it doesn't work, we will all have plenty of time to criticize what went wrong. We have tons of experience in this regard in Leafland.

    Thans, Ktown Rob.

  11. Michael,

    In the sense that this year is possibly a development / experiment year, so has many of the Wilson years. The problem I have with this kind of coaching is that you're putting the organization at risk of taking their Cup aspirations cavalierly. When your core players like Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf have expiring contracts the following year, it doesn't make a great deal of sense to give the coach latitude to experiment. On a young and developing team, I would imagine that the core players want to feel there is a coherent and progressive direction towards the ultimate goal -- the Stanley Cup.

    However, I think Carlyle has balanced this 'experimentation' and hatred of losing very well. In the sense that he has ensured that his lines are constantly fresh and a revolving door of production and ensuring everyone gets their reps when they deserve it. And we're winning -- somehow. I still have my doubts, but I suppose the scheduling has made certain games look lackluster when it's just everyone trying to catch their breath.

    One thing I do like is that someone is finally demanding accountability out of their players rather than playing them due to the number of digits on their contract. It must hurt for Komisarek and Liles that they have to watch from the press box, but it does serve a greater purpose that the young players see that a spot in the line-up is no longer a guarantee. That kind of hanging guillotine must be a huge motivator.

    Moreover, I am pleased with the way he rolls out his lines. I dislike that Orr played so much as Kadri's wingman, but one coaching decision shouldn't detract from his masterful work with both the way he shelters players and creates opportunities for Franson, Kadri, and others.

    Good write up :)


  12. Plenty of worthwhile thoughts in your comment today, Anon (MorrganRielly). I would concur with your opening paragraph- players need to know they are playing for something real, not just some vague hope of being "competitive" in the future.

    But as you say, the coach has indeed balanced a year of clear experimentation with instilling in the team that losing is not OK.

    Love your line- that we're winning "somehow". I feel that way a lot, too, but as I keep saying, we're not exactly playing the '77 Habs most nights...

    I think we'd all like to see Kadri play with skilled guys who can take advantage of his vision, but that, I sense, will come.

    Thanks- great post.

  13. Thanks for the reminder, Michael, of what this season is all about. We tend to get carried away when we string some wins together and get ahead of ourselves. I remember thinking when Burke got fired that the reason for the decision was precisely so that Nonis and Carlyle would get a chance to continue the 'rebuild' without the pressure that would have been on Burke to deliver 'now'. The kids have come of age and it was time to let them play, to see, as you say, what we've got and to tone down the expectations of the fans... It worked. Another reason for the change in management, I think, was to give the players a chance to 'start again' and somehow erase the culture of losing from their minds and trading Schenn was a big part of that - the poor kid was thrown into the fire way too early and had to endure 4 or 5 seasons of losing and was becoming a poster-boy for failure. Replacing him with JVR and replacing the other 'losers' (Lombardi, Komisarek and Connolly - all pretty god players actually but mainstays in that losing club) with young guys with something to prove is also a part of that equation.

    I don't agree, however, that missing the playoffs this year is ok insofar as that will so-to-say infect the new roster with the 'losing bug'. I think we absolutely need to make the playoffs this year in order for everyone to begin to feel good about themselves. TML is one of those few clubs that has that 'extra gear' that many other clubs don't - namely the ability to generate 'hype' that can propel players like Kadri from mediocrity into stardom. Of course, the opposite is true as well - expectations are high and failure is all that much more prominent when it happens and that - ruthless criticism, negative attention (just consider what the captain, Kessel and Schenn have had to go through) can really kill the team.

    I think that making the playoffs this year is the key to the possibility of us ever seeing the cup in Toronto again and I really hope Nonis and Carlyle understand that. If we make the postseason the 'extra gear' will kick in and the sky will be the limit. If we don't, we are running the risk of the rebuild going down the drain and the culture of losing reasserting itself.

  14. Well Michael I haven't posted in a while because I wanted to see how the Leafs were faring after the half way mark before commenting. While the Leafs are not as bad as I feared they would be ( I predicted another top 3 pick, with an excellent shot at number one) niether are they probably aren't as good as their record has it right now. Although I am not a huge believer in advanced stats as some are, the underlying numbers point to a Leaf team playing above their heads right now. All this points to a a central point in your essay today that this is a bonus year trying to figure out which parts are essential and which are to be used to make the team better.

    I've said this before (espicially after Burke got canned) that this year is not about making the playoffs (which as Jim pointed out is an awfully low bar). It's about making the team a contender on a yearly basis. Looking at Nonis' track record I would say he is the man for the job. It would not suprise me in the least if despite being in a playoff spot the team takes a step back to be able to jump forward next year. I think some important questions have been answered already this year. Riemer is a number one goalie. Frattin, Kadri, Komarov and JVR are all legitimate NHL players. We still need a number one center although I would be inclined to put Kadri there and give his shot. I think your correct in having 4 dmen penciled in for next year which leaves Kostka, Holzer, Blacker and Franson fighting for 2 spots leaving Komisarek and Liles on the outside looking in. They are making progress and I hold firm to my prediction that in 1-2 years this will be a team to be reckoned with.

  15. That's a very good post, leafdreamer. There are some important distinctions, as you note: Schenn is not a "loser"- far from it. But he was part of an unfortunate losing pattern, as have been many other Leafs.

    Your playoff point is one I have made at times as well. I think this season will not be a "waste" even if we don't make it, but I am holding to the view that these young players (and even some of the older guys) need to play when it counts - and specifically in a Maple Leaf uniform. At some point you have to get that exposure and that experience. Shooting for a goal always matters, even if the ultimate end objective is not achieved right away.

  16. I really believe, Willbur, that most Leaf fans would be OK if they really believed the team would be a legitimate contender in two seasons- and then remain so. Even top teams massage their rosters before a serious playoff run, and we're not at that point yet. We still have too many holes in the roster, though maybe fewer than before. We are very much a work-in-progress.

    We've all been frustrated by lofty expectations (sometimes organizational predictions) and no delivery over the past near-decade, and I'm not prepared to canonize either Nonis or Carlyle. But if slow and steady can win a race, then let's see what unfolds. Thanks Willbur.