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The Carlyle “defensive system” needs a little more work, eh?

I’m being tongue-in-cheek when I make reference to the Leafs needing to do a bit more work under Carlyle on their new “defensive” system. Tongue-in-cheek because, as I have posted recently, most of us would agree that any “early days” observations of how a team plays under a new coach—especially in-season—should be measured.  As in, let’s not make any grand assessments, good or bad, too soon.

Case in point, it’s easy to watch a team win as the Leafs did against a weak Montreal team on Saturday and think we have witnessed a sudden turnaround in, for example, defensive consciousness—when what we may really be seeing is simply adrenaline flowing in their first game for a new coach with a hard-ass reputation, against mediocre opposition.

Similarly, a loss against the Bruins deserves not much more time under the microscope. We have to understand that it will be well into next season before we see (if any) the true fruits of the Carlyle approach.  That doesn’t mean I’m suggesting the Leafs won’t play every well the rest of this season under the former Anaheim coach (I’m guessing they will)—simply that a lot of that will be a mirage, a short-term uptick caused by the urgency of the current situation and, again, the reality of a new set of eyes making assessments of Maple Leaf players who may be on the bubble to make this team next fall.

So when we assess how the Leafs did in their 5-4 loss, we should keep in mind that, broadly speaking, they are keen to impress the new guy and are also still adjusting to a new system of play. On the surface, I’m guessing 5 goals against (all, importantly, at even strength, which tells us something) is not exactly what Carlyle and his coaching staff have in mind for the Leafs most nights, but it’s very early in his tenure—too early to be either excited or discouraged.

That said, Tuesday night’s game against the Bruins set up perfectly for the Leafs.  They were coming off a huge slide-breaking (and pressure relieving) win in Montreal on the weekend.  They had two days of good practice time under the new coach.  No travel to worry about.  They were at home.  They were healthy.  And they were hosting a Boston team that was injury-riddled (Ference, Horton, Peverley and Rask among the key guys out; we don’t even think about Savard anymore…) and not playing very well of late.

Importantly, Tim Thomas has not been his outstanding self, either, and in truth, he wasn’t great against the Leafs.  It would/should have been the night to take advantage of the Bruins when they were off their game, and when Thomas was not unbeatable.  And the Leafs did have their moments.  Kessel scored against his old team, something that hasn’t happened much since joining the Leafs.  Grabbo (on the night he signed his new five-year contract with the blue and white) flashed that little smile after MacArthur’s outstanding “sudden offense” pass sprung him for the marker that brought the Leafs within one late in the third period.  Too, the Leafs tried to stand up to the Bruins physically.  Heck, Connolly woke up Leafworld with a wrestling throw-down on Marchand, one of the hated Bruins (there are a lot of them, eh?).

While Gardiner struggled at times, he looked like he was shot out of the proverbial canon while the Leafs were killing a penalty at one point and almost created a short-handed goal for Kulemin.  He should only get better.

But while the Leafs had their chances, including an abbreviated last-second 6 on 4 man advantage, it wasn’t enough as they missed a golden opportunity to knock off the defending Cup champs.

Some will blame Gustavsson for the goals against, but while he obviously wasn’t perfect, he made some nice saves at various points, including while the Leafs were working to cut the lead in the third period. Our defensive coverage wasn’t exactly flawless.  And Lucic alone missed two glorious chances in the third, an empty net staring back at him on both occasions.  But the Leafs had opportunities, too.  It was that kind of game—not the sort of contest that coaches generally like to see, especially with the playoffs around the corner.

It will be interesting to see Carlyle’s line-up from here on out.  Does Komisarek stay in, as a physical defensive defenseman?  And what about Schenn, who, like Komisarek, was also a minus 2 on the night against the Bruins?  I’m not sure what Franson has done to earn a seat in the press box, but it’s better to have too many defensemen than not enough. 

In-game injuries to Armstrong and Lupul may complicate things a touch (as I write this I don’t know what their status is), though Brown and Crabb could draw back in against the Penguins Wednesday night if Brown's hand has healed.  If not, and Armstrong and Lupul can’t go, then presumably we’ll see Colborne or Kadri in the line-up against the Pens.

It was a night to be hopeful going in, and there are things to be hopeful about going forward.  The East  remains a real wild-card right now.  A three-game winning streak and the Leafs are right back in the driver’s seat.  That’s not to create false expectations, simply a reflection of how the Conference has been most of this season.  Things should go down to the wire. 

Regardless, you get the feeling that, throughout the rest of this season, both Burke and Carlyle will have one eye on the ice and one eye on next season as they assess what they have—and what they need.


  1. I can't get too worked up about that game. Our terrible defense is terrible and our goaltending is not NHL quality and that's that. At least RC got a good, solid look at what our D looks like against a real team, and that should be helpful.
    Watching Thomas tonight, though, if you were a fiercely competitive GM, you would either make sure Turco gets claimed on waivers before the Bruins get him, or, you'd give to the Bruins what they gave to Ryan Miller and see if you could knock Thomas out of the game- their season would be more or less over right there.
    And the reffing tonight- I truly believe this is one of the worst seasons of reffing I've ever witnessed in my life. I can't understand why the GMs aren't in an uproar about it. Just terrible work- a slew foot on Gustavsson missed, the hit on Lupul should have been a game misconduct along with 5 for Chara, the too many men in the 3rd, the Bruins piling on with some artful stick work, blocking and interference and on and on. Atrocious. It really has to stop.
    Other than that, we seem to either get a good jump out of the gate, like tonight, and have a horrible 2nd as the opposing team adjusts and run out of time trying to fix our mistakes in the 3rd, or we come out flat, get too far behind in the 2nd out of time in the 3rd. Predictable as we're not a team that can give out punishment for 60 minutes unless it's vs. a team like the Habs.
    Lastly Grabbo's goal was worth about, oh, say, $5.5M.

  2. I should probably never write a post after a loss - it's harder and harder to see positives, particularly this year. There was Frattin with two chances to put us up 2-0, and blew both. "It happens", I suppose, but it's also "more of the same". What's now painfully obvious is that we're simply no match for a team like the Bruins - even when they're missing half their starters. We have a long way to go, and I can already feel significant changes in the air.
    I know Leaf fans are renowned for their unceasing optimism, but this one can't help feel that here we are in the fourth year of the Burke regime, and we're right where we were last year - on the outside, needing three teams to tank while we go on a spree, if we're to make it into the playoffs. Phew! Long odds! (But on the bright side, if we pull it together, we'll be flying for the first round...)
    I think Burke has improved the organization - we've now got lots of potential! But he hasn't improved the NHL team, and we're about to have a change in philosophy which means more player movement, a mini-rebuild (hopefully), and another year of figuring it all out. I wonder how long the new management group is going to be happy with this lack of results in the here and now?

  3. Hey KidK....Carlyle will indeed get a great sneak preview of what he will have to work with heading into next season. That should prove helpful, though I'm guessing there will be some summer roster turnover.

    As for the Bruins, they have their own issues these days. They can't be too pleased with their performance. Thomas was just OK and, as you cite, if he goes down, they are in big-time trouble. They don't win last year without Thomas- full stop.

  4. Gerund O'...the team has potential, for sure. The next hurdle will be ensuring that that "potential" is maximized and plays itself out with the Leafs at the NHL level.

    I was just conversing with some people on Twitter tonight, chatting about how Tlusty (a Burke trade) has really developed nicely in Carolina. That was a give-away of a former draft choice and now he looks like a player. Potential is great, recognizing it is one thing, developing it properly is another.

    For tonight, though, I'm choosing to think in positive terms, though you well know I share your sentiment about where we are, going on four years into Burke's time here....Thanks.

  5. Welcome to the Carlye age Ladies and Gentlemen. Less skill, more thuggery (pointless Rosehill fight). Less first line, more Steckel (wins faceoffs and does nothing else worthwhile). More trap, less free flow. Whatever, another lost season and now the entertaining offense first gone for the trap. Whee, might as well cheer for Ottawa, at least they will make the playoffs.

    We have talked about how some guys are going to get better under Carlye (Schenn, Komisarek) but what about guys going the other way? Kessel is not going to thrive in this system, it wouldn't suprise me in the least to see him traded this summer becuase when his contract is up I just don't see him resigning. The other guy I would have concerns about is Gardiner. I am willing to bet if Carlye had been coach all year we wouldn't be nearly as keen to hold on to him as we have been. Just as he was finding his offensive stride under Wilson, I'll bet he has been told if he gets over center ice in a rush he might as well stay out because as soon as he hits the bench he ain't getting off it. To me he has just looked totaly lost in the last 2 games. Kinda reminds me of Schenn under Wilson.
    Lupul is another guy who is going to struggle. They already have a history and his first 2 games under Carlye are probably not going to help change that history. Oh well such is life in Leaf land.

  6. This one was a bit ugly to watch, Michael. Among several other areas, it showed even when we make an honest effort to be 'tough', we get our noses bloodied and our proverbial asses kicked. Like the Chicago game, this team was beatable (as you posted yesterday). I could almost feel Carlyle's eyes rolling at some of the defensive lapses. As KidK said, we shouldn't get worked up about this since it just reinforces what we already know (though the optimists amongst us won't admit): that this season is pretty much close to a write off.

    You posed the question recently about something along the lines what success during Burke's era means. Well, he did nothing at the deadline, fired a coach too late, then hired a new one whom he assured us will "salvage the season" ... After tonight's display, I sure hope one of Carlyle's qualities is performing miracles.

    Geez, I think I too shouldn't post after a loss! But thanks for the forum to vent!


  7. raise some sobering thoughts. Just as some players may "thrive" (we're guessing at this point) under the new coach and system, others may not.

    Your perspective leads another concerning thought: is it possible that, despite Burke obviously blaming Wilson for the team's inability to win enough, the team actually will prove to have been better under Wilson? By that I mean, this is a limited roster to begin with, but Wilson allowed the skill guys to play, activated the defence, while still asking for defensive awareness.

    For now, I'll just watch and wait. Thanks Willbur.

  8. Caedmon, well said.

    We have to keep in mind that Carlyle is a "good" coach, but he is that, a good coach, not a saviour. (Wilson was a "good" coach as well.) Carlyle won with an excellent line-up and great goaltending in Anaheim. He has a reputation for being "tough" and "demanding" but he's not alone in that regard. Lots of NHL coaches bring that element to their coaching style.

    It will be Carlyle's way or the highway, but as I mentioned above, I'll hold back on any definitive commentary at this point. It's still way to early to gauge things, even if the Leafs start winning some games. It may sell be a mirage.

  9. We must trade for Nash in the offseason! Kessel can and will survive under Carlyle but he needs a bigger center and a big winger.....

    Nash Colborne Kessel
    Kulemin Grabbo Lupul
    Carter Bozak Frattin
    Gaustead Steckel Brown

    Phaneuf Gardiner
    Liles Franson
    Gunnerson Allen (from Car.)


    (trade Kadri, Schenn, McArthur, Lombardi, Mueller, Reimer for Nash and Mason)

  10. Anon...thanks for posting. We'll see if your words ring prophetic come summer!

  11. The problem with that lineup, Anon, is that half of it goes out the door for Nash. Who is no better, technically, than Grabovski and has a horrible contract. No thanks.

  12. 2 games is hardly time to implement a defensive style and expect the players to do it properly. Carlyle needs time.
    But, I like his comments a lot more than Wilson. Part of why we've had horrible, horrible goaltending since the lockout is how exposed they are. We are probably not going to get a bona-fide #1 goalie this summer, they seem rarer and rarer, but we can sure stop exposing them so badly and give them a fighting chance.

  13. Hi Karina, your point is well taken. As I tried to highlight in my original post, it's best for fans not to get too high -or low- based on the "early results". It generally takes time for a new coach to get players to play his new system effectively, on a consistent basis. Some nights things will look great, other nights, not so much.

    Your point with regard to goaltending is key: whoever is in net next season, the team can do him a favour by offering the opposition fewer high-quality scoring chances....

  14. "With All-Star winger Joffrey Lupul out indefinitely with an upper body injury, it was expected that the Leafs would need to recall a scoring winger to take his place in the lineup, most likely Nazem Kadri.

    This morning the Leafs recalled recently acquired Carter Ashton and he will make his Leafs debut tonight."

    Wow...I am curious to see Carter...but I feel sorry for Kadri and Colborne.

    I hope the Leafs clean house in the summer so some of the the kids can have get a chance.

  15. Thanks DP Yes, it will be interesting to see Ashton in the line-up. I do wonder how the "meritocracy" is working, given how hard Ryan Hamilton has worked for the Marlies the past two seasons (and he has yet to play an NHL game, I don't believe) and of course, as you cite, Kadri and Colborne.

    Are both those young players not working hard under Eakins? Or is something else the agenda?

  16. Absolutely Michael. It's funny, I heard Peter Gross on 680 the last couple days talking about how Boston was a must-win to make playoffs, and this morning he said 'new coach, same result'.

    Now I realize Gross has but a few minutes for his sportscasts, but surely everyone has to realize that Boston, weakened as they may be, is still a very decent team. And, as much as I blamed Wilson for a lot, this team's woes stretch far beyond simply a head coach.

    I really liked last night's game. Boston burned them in the second, and it shows there's still an issue with a 60-minute effort. I thought Gardiner's rookie status was exposed a number of times, even on his offensive rush (when he suddenly ended up with no clear option and coughed up the puck). But as a team, they fought back. They tried to pick up Gus a bit (though he was fairly solid).

    The point is, this will take time. It's a different system. Carlyle will need to experiment some. I mean, at one point, things here were working, then they weren't. We all need to remember: Connolly, Lombardi, Armstrong, Komisarek, guys who many folks want out of town, are actually signed for another year. That means the coach has to proceed with a plan that incorporates them, and as such, he needs to find better roles for them than Wilson had.

    I would love it if this was 1992-93, where a new coach and some one-sided trades result in going from out of the playoffs to the Conference Finals. But I think the realists among us know that's not a likely situation.

    If they can bring some of last night into each game, the effort to come back, etc., play that way each night, they may yet have a shot at the post-season. Otherwise, this is most likely audition time, 18 games for Burke and Carlyle to figure out what the next moves are.

  17. I always look forward to your level-headed observations, Mark. Thanks.

    At this point, "must win" is kind of a meaningless term. Yes, the Leafs can certainly make the playoffs in the mediocre East, but fans know there is a lot more work to be done here before we can get serious about chasing a much bigger objective.

  18. "Toronto Maple Leafs forward Joffrey Lupul will be out of the lineup for three to four weeks with a separated shoulder..."