At the end of the day, the Maple Leafs—as currently composed—are a skating club. They were that under Ron Wilson, and had some heady moments, for sure, during his time behind the bench. (The significant “success” in the first half of the 2011-’12 NHL season was a testament to that.) But somewhat to our amazement (at least mine), they still are a skating club under Randy Carlyle.
I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting when Carlyle came to town, but I recall being less than thrilled at the prospect. At the very least, I anticipated he would be a disciplinarian (though Wilson was supposed to be a demanding task master as well) who focused on defensive “structure”, which is fine. I perhaps figured that the team might be better, but dreadfully dull.
To step back a bit, I remember Carlyle as an emerging young defenseman on the Leaf blueline in the late 1970s. He was tough but had some offensive skill as well. (I actually spent a lot of time at Maple Leaf Gardens in those days watching him play back then.) And I well recalled his subsequent very good (and lengthy) NHL career as a versatile, leader-type defenseman in Pittsburgh and Winnipeg.
As a coach, he had had success as well, at the minor-league and NHL level. A Cup on the resume never hurts. But I was still a bit skeptical when Burke made the hire. Like many, I wondered why Carlyle was brought in when he was, with a season already well out of control. I further wondered, like other Leaf observers, if Dallas Eakins might have been the best choice, given that he had worked with so many of the promising Leaf prospects.
As the 2012-’13 season moved along, I sort of grudgingly came to see what Carlyle was about, at least as he came across in this market. Publicly, he was much less acerbic than his predecessor (which was one of one major issues with Wilson). I also noticed that, while Carlyle had a reputation as a taciturn, no-nonsense guy, he seemed to communicate a lot with his players, including on the bench. He wasn’t afraid to physically pat a guy on the back—something a lot of coaches are not comfortable doing.
He gave Kadri a shot at a full-time gig, and put him on a much longer leash than the young center (previously a winger for some reason) had ever been on before. He asked for more from Kessel at both ends of the ice, but did not limit him offensively as best I could tell.
The new Leaf coach had to work with a limited (and often injured, i.e. Gunnarsson, Gardiner) defense corps. He had to incorporate unproven minor-leaguers like Kostka and Holzer into the lineup, especially when the previous season’s standout rookie (Gardiner) was hit with a concussion and struggled upon his return.
Lupul was injured (again) and the team had no identifiable big-league goaltending heading into the shortened season. (I can only imagine what Carlyle must have honestly been thinking, preparing for a season with no training camp to speak of and goaltenders he knew little about…) Some of us had remained in Reimer’s corner during the long, dark days of doubt, but many fans wanted Luongo or someone (anyone?) else to man the Leaf net, because they were not at all comfortable with Reimer or Scrivens are number-one guys. Carlyle must have felt some uncertainty himself.
But he pushed forward with the Reimer and Scrivens, giving both a chance to show they belonged. Both did well, Reimer ultimately playing his way into the top job.
My point in all this is that, bottom line, Carlyle worked with a roster that, sure, had some nice pieces, but really no elite goaltender and nowhere near enough elite NHL defensemen. He still lacked a top-end center, and had taken over a team that could not possibly be worse at killing penalties—one of the most important aspects of the modern-day game.
What Carlyle delivered, in the end, was a team that sometimes played like the puck was a hot potato, yet overcome turnovers and being out-shot too many nights to post a winning record and earn a playoff berth in the quality-starved Eastern Conference.
But to me, the big thing Carlyle did was change the temperature in the dressing room, the overall expectations he had when it came to a standard of play. Not to over-use words like “accountability” (we’ve seen that movie in Toronto before) but he actually delivered on developing a team that seemed to not accept losing quite as easily as Leaf teams had in the previous eight or nine seasons. They became tougher, harder to play against. Some of it was the presence of Orr and MacLaren, sure, but it was more than that. There was an edge to their overall play most nights. Individuals like McClement and Komarov finished checks and played hard, smart hockey. Even guys like Kadri played with a bit of a mean streak. Our penalty killing did indeed improve dramatically. And some youngsters began to demonstrate why the Leafs drafted, signed or traded for them in the first place.
We can argue whether Grabovski was utilized properly, but my answer is this: Grabbo, who usually plays with a big heart, is paid big money to be an elite second-line player with important defensive responsibilities. Whether he played with the “right” guys all the time, I can’t say. But he did not deliver what I expected at either end of the ice, and I’m not sure he provided what Carlyle was looking for, either. Blame it on Carlyle if you want, but he was not the guy making 5 million plus to do a job—and not getting it done.
Let’s put it this way: there are a few Leafs (I know many will disagree, but I’ll throw MacArthur and Kulemin in here, along with Grabbo) who we keep making excuses for. They may have been hurt. They maybe played with the wrong guys. They were snake-bit. The coach didn’t like them. Whatever.
I’ll just say this: at some point, all players are responsible for their own performance. It’s not all on their teammates, or their coach. I can maybe accept that, in the case of goaltenders, if you have a coach who is filling your head (Allaire?) with stuff that just doesn’t work for you, that’s an issue. But by and large, NHL players have to play with whomever they are asked to play with, and do the job that is asked of them. In Grabbovski’s case, that was checking, many nights, a good center on the other team. At the end of the day, his (minus) numbers were simply not good enough.
All this said, my point is not to canonize Carlyle. But I figure since he gets plenty of criticism elsewhere from the stats folks and other Leaf supporters (and I do get the criticism, I just don’t hang my hat on all that), I would try to provide some balance.
He has changed the attitude around here. Expectations, I sense, will be even higher (as they should be; just making the playoffs, as I like to say, was the low-hanging fruit) going forward.
Now it will be a case of finding the right mix of skill and grit.
I read something that caught my eye the other day from a great former major league baseball player (and as I write this, still the manager of the struggling LA Dodgers), Don Mattingly. Mattingly was a talented but also hard-working player for the New York Yankees until the mid-‘90s or so. He was a great Yankee and very well-respected on and off the field.
It looked for a time that he may actually be the next Yankee manager after Joe Torre, but the job went to Joe Girardi. In any event, here is what Mattingly said about building a team:
"Part of it is the mixture of competitiveness. It's not just putting an All-Star team out there and the All-Star team wins. You try to find that balance of a team that's got a little grit and fight, and has enough talent to get there also. It's not all grit and no talent that gets there, and it's not all talent and no grit. It's a mixture of both."
I think this applies to hockey, too, and certainly the Maple Leafs. When I look at that quote, I think of the Devils and the Red Wings (and before that, the Avalanche) who fit that bill—not just for one season (one-hit wonders like the Lightning and the Hurricanes) but season after season. They built teams with skill, yes, but also grit and a tremendous work ethic.
That’s exactly what the Leafs have to do, regardless of who coaches the team, or what “system” they employ or who plays with who.
I always remember the Wayne Gretzky comment, made many years ago when he was the coach of the Coyotes. He said, “You know what beats hard work? Talent and hard work”.
The Leafs are a team right now that works pretty hard most nights. Again, I would expect that from a borderline team that needed to be a lot better than it had been in recent years.
But I was impressed that they were by and large able to outplay the Bruins at times in the playoffs, combining the aforementioned (and always required) hard work with the requisite skill.
I would say we are three or four pieces/players away from being a team that could be in a position to win the East. Heck, we maybe could have advanced to the Conference final this season, with a few breaks. But I’m talking about being consistently elite, like the teams I mentioned above.
Only three or four players away. Too optimistic?
What do you think...
What do you think...