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Carlyle delivers a lineup closer to what most Leaf fans want to see…what does this mean for the rest of the season?

I don’t place a lot of emphasis on games like the one on the Island Thursday night—you know, after everyone has had a long layoff and teams need a bit of time to get back to normal.  I tend to feel the same way after the All Star break, for example.  Guys' heads are not always fully back where they need to be.  But every point matters and the Leafs were able to—yet again—find a way to score enough late to earn a crucial point on the road.

Credit to the Islanders, who will have to adjust to playing without their best player—John Tavares.  They won in what can only be called a sloppy contest. For their part,  the Leafs worked past the dubious early distinction of giving up two goals on their own  power-play within about a minute or so of each other, to continue their steady climb up the Eastern Conference standings.

Some small but significant things caught my eye—Kessel picked up where he left off before the Olympic break, working to Bozak and van Riemsdyk to open the scoring.  Then there was Bozak using his speed to help create a turnover when the game was tied at 2 and ultimately dishing off nicely to Phaneuf to give the Leafs the lead.  (The Kessel/JVR/Bozak line was a plus 2 on the night, I believe.) Kadri then made a sweet little pass to Lupul to set up a great top-shelf backhand goal to restore a Leaf lead.  However, the scrappy Islanders took advantage of the Leafs running around a bit in their own zone to even things up again with just over two minutes left in the contest.

But the thing that may caught my eye most happened before the game even started.  Carlyle went with 7 defensemen again, a mini-trend that started just before the Olympic break.  Just as notably, his “extra” forwards (beyond the top three lines) were Troy Bodie and Trevor Smith. 

Whether it’s Bodie and Smith, or Carter Ashton and Peter Holland, my sense from the readership here at VLM is that the majority of Leaf supporters want to see the coach run with guys who can skate and crash (and make plays on occasion), and who can be more than one-dimensional in terms of their contributions.

This is not to say there will never be a need on a given night for Colton Orr or Fraser McLaren. But by and large, my sense, too, is that the Leafs will achieve more with well-rounded contributors on their fourth line.  I don’t see Carlyle going regularly with 7 defensemen, but at the moment, it makes sense to keep everyone’s blueline minutes down and to give someone like Ranger needed ice time, because we may well need him come playoff time.  (That he scored another goal should be a nice boost to his confidence.)

Again, the game was hardly a barometer of anything.  At times the Leafs looked like a squad that had not played a game in weeks (months?).  Bernier made some good stops, but was not at his razor-sharp best, nor could we have expected him to be.  The last goal in overtime was a bit of a fluke.  Blame may fall on van Riemsdyk for a give away, but I would liked to have seen Gardiner been harder on the puck in the corner to prevent it from getting to the front of the Leaf net to begin with. (Maybe I’m being too hard on the young Leaf decfenseman.)

All in all, it was a game the Leafs had to play to get back into game action and the overall swing of things.  Nothing more, nothing less.

That said, the coaches will certainly have plenty of “mistake” tapes for film sessions before the game on Saturday night, which may not be a bad thing.  The Leafs were no doubt feeling pretty ‘heady’ after their run up the standings in late January and early February.  A loss against an Islander team reeling from losing Tavares may be a gentle nudge, if one was needed—a reminder that no NHL team can be taken lightly.

As many of us have said, there is still plenty to work on for this team.  They started the stretch run against the Islanders much the same way they have played most of the season- giving up too many shots.  But they still got a point—which is almost a bonus after a game like that one.


  1. Hi Michael,

    I have zero confidence that the coaching staff will continue to ice a more talent laden lineup when the facepunchers are healthy again. For evidence, have a look at the lineups they put in to start the Boston series. To me, stupid is, as stupid does.

    The other interesting thing about being a Leafs fan is how no one ever places any importance on the games that resemble a tire fire, yet how eager everyone is to claim the world is there for the taking when they do play well.

    The same old song and dance as far as I am concerned regarding tonights game. Outshot, outchanced, and out scored. After all the talk about a renewed commitment to playing without the puck. That and not to mention how hard Clarkson was working out. It's not like the vast majority of this organization had anything pressing to do over the Olympic break. Yet, the game went as planned, Kessel looks awesome, they have some talent, its too bad they don't have anything to go after that.

    I look forward to hearing some more excuses before they play on Saturday.

    1. I guess we can hope there has been an adjustment in thinking since the Boston series, Jim. We'll know for sure come April.

    2. I have to agree with Jim on many points. For one, although rust seems like the perfect justification for some of yesterday's sloppiness, too much of fit the pattern witnessed in countless other games. The Leafs are who they are: A talented, offensively efficient, yet unpredictably clumsy squad.

      And I cringe at the thought of McLaren and Orr making up two-thirds of the fourth line in the near future.

      But as you said Michael, I like the 7-dmen look for now as it gets hard working/productive forwards extra shifts and gets keeps every defencemen in game shape.

      Antoni Nerestant

    3. Jim provides a reality check here, Antoni, which I appreciate. I think we all see the weaknesses in the team's performance, but for now, if they can stay healthy and pile up points heading into the playoffs, at least fans can hope that some of the deficiencies will at least be partially rectified by April. Thanks Antoni!

    4. Thank you both for the acknowledgement above. There are very few things that would give me more pleasure than to see the Leafs win the Cup, and I really do mean that.

      My question for both of you is this. By shortening his bench all year, our coach, in my opinion is running the very serious risk of overusing his top talent in order to get in the playoffs. I do realize that this is what he needs to do job wise, but, in order to make a run a fresh lineup with four lines contributing would be advantageous, no?

    5. I would absolutely like to see Carlyle roll four lines- no question. Quinn did it successfully when the Leafs were good...most good teams can do that.

  2. I thought the line up choices were very significant.

    The Islanders are not a soft team. Bolton was out there and he is a heavyweight. The Islanders also have another heavyweight in Matt Carkner. Matt Martin already has 8 fights this year. Cal Clutterbuck hits to injure:

    If there was a game to play your face-punchers, this was one of them.

    The fact that Carlyle did not play even one of McLaren or Orr is significant. I think it shows Carlyle is ramping up for the playoffs and thinking about first round positioning.

    Too bad it didn't result in two points tonight.

    4 point game on Saturday.

    1. The Isles have some guys who play with an edge, for sure, DP. We'll see if Carlyle will go with a lineup along these lines more consistently from now on.

  3. Hey Michael,

    This game was a tire fire/a real stinker for both teams. But this is something I have come to accept of this team - whenever you think "they can just collect these 2 points relatively easy" they will almost always loose this season.

    The line-up was better than the goons but I think some of that is the fact that the senior goon is injured and the junior goon is not that great even for Carlyle. However, after watching all-stars on team Canada execute and see some good coaching - this game was rather bland and boring and a bit of a disappointment. - Not blaming anyone just the difference is the skill, execution and coaching are stark and fairly noticeable.

    At this point no further help is coming to the leafs - so this team is what it is.

    So if you are a believer in god - then grab whichever holy book you prefer and start praying.

    And if you aren't a believer then just wish for good luck/bounces/cross your fingers.

    This is what you have as a team - so relax - get that blood pressure down leaf fans and just enjoy the game and go with the flow - wherever it is that this team takes us.

    Anon from Scarborough

    1. You may be right, Scarborough Anon. If this team is what it is, with no reinforcements on the way, I guess we take the good with the not-so-good!

  4. P.S.

    Thought i'd just make a point about all those reporters who feel peeved at kessel should be quiet.

    Kessel has gone from (in a leaf uniform) in points in the league: 69th (09-10) to 36th (10-11) to 6th (11-12) to 8th (in a short 12-13) to 2nd right now only behind Crosby (13-14).

    Kessel in goals scored: from 21st (09-10) to 19th (10-11) to 7th (11-12) to 13th (in a short 12-13) to 2nd right now only behind Ovechkin (13-14)

    Anon from Scarborough

  5. Hi Michael.

    Ditto for me. A very disappointing game when the Leafs could have moved ahead of Tampa. It seems that the more they work on team defense the worse it gets. Back to the drawing board. Well, I guess if they were perfect we'd have nothing to talk about --- we still have LOTS to talk about. So many mental errors. I'll be more positive tomorrow, I expect. At least scoring isn't a problem. C.N.

  6. First game after the Olympics so it probably doesn't mean too much but it was painful to see the Leafs blow a lead and lose after coming back to take a lead. On the other hand I am also happy with the Leafs just slipping into the playoffs and surprising everyone and getting a good draft pick which of course shouldn't happen because they will they win a few rounds or more. I remember two years ago when the Leafs lost their final game of the season to the Habs which meant they picked at #5 instead of #7. Now I hate the Habs but that was one time when I was really hoping the Leafs would lose. I was happy when the Habs scored shorthanded with the Leafs on a two man power play advantage. Seriously - Leafs had a two man advantage and I was hoping for the hated Habs. Now I won't be happy this Saturday if that happens. But losing that game meant the Leafs were able to pick Rielly. Right now I am happy with the Leafs making it but still finishing low enough to get a good draft pick if they can't win a playoff round. I'm still thinking long term because I have lived through 45 years of watching stupid short term moves liker Kurvers for a Niedermayer or actually Lindros from all the deals the Leafs made not to finish last overall.

    Now I was thinking about your last blog wondering how far the Leafs can go. I think the Leafs are really underrated. For as long as I can remember they have said the only way to win a Cup is to hit rock bottom and get the #1 overall picks like Crosby, Tavares, Stamkos and Lemieux. So maybe that wasn't the only way but it was pretty high on the list. Leafs never did this but they came lose and the pick went to the Bruins in the Kessel deal. But I think the Leafs are ready to surprise quite a few of the experts. I think some of their players are actually elite level picks. Kessel was a #5 pick but was actually in the running for #1 overall but it could be he failed the interviews and went lower than expected. Rielly was also a #5 but Burke swore he would have taken Rielly #1 if that was where the Leafs had picked. Burke said all along the Leafs had Rielly as the best player in the draft and would have actually traded up to pick him but took a chance because they thought he would be there at #5.Then you have JVR who is a bona fide #2 overall. Then you have Lupul and Kadri as #7's and Phaneuf at #9 and Bernier at #11. So on paper the Leafs should be a team that should be able to win the Cup. So maybe I am being over optimistic but I really believe they could win it all this year, and I think they are a young team and they could be right up there for the next five years. Let's face it the Leafs are going to win the Cup and pretty soon. I'll also admit I have made these predictions before but seriously I think this year is different and I know that statement will also make a lot of people laugh which doesn't concern me in the least because the people laughing are all the same people who laughed when Burke traded for Kessel.

    1. Yes, the Leaf lineup includes a number of high first-round picks, and that generally, nowadays, is how to build your roster. Add in some seasoned vets brought in at the right time through judicious trades and a key UFA here or there and the mix works a lot of the time.

      There will also be question marks: is Carlyle the guy to get them to the finals? Can the goaltending hold up when it matters? Do they need to make a move before the deadline?Is this a year to "go for it" or do you hold on to all your assets and make a big move a year from now?

      Yes, lots of issues still, but as Colleen said above, if there weren't any challenges, what would we talk about? Thanks Alton.

  7. I agree with you that no particular emphasis should be placed on the game last night. That said, the game had all the elements we are familiar with:

    1. A Gardiner giveaway leading directly to a goal
    2. A very weak goal allowed by Bernier
    3. Kessel playing great

    1. It did look like a replay of quite number of games from earlier this season, Oliver.

      Generally speaking, most good teams start playing "playoff hockey" over the last 15-20 games of the regular season. The time feels right for that approach...

  8. I agree first games back from any layoff are always a crap shoot. We discussed prior to the Olympics the question mark for many teams after a really long layoff and then jumping right back into a very tight schedule. Losing to the Islanders with the turnovers hurts though. I would have almost rather played a top team last night. Get the team ramped up emotionally right away other than a bottom feeder without their super start. But you have to play who is on the schedule. The give aways were horrendous on both sides last night. Carlyle looked like he was about have an aneurysm on the bench more than once. Hopefully the game against the Habs Saturday they find their game smarts.

    1. Agreed, Pep. If we had high expectations last night in terms of the Leaf performance going in, as Jim noted above we would have been sorely disappointed in some ways, because there were just flat out too many mistakes. But assuming it was one game in isolation after a long break, I'll pause and see where we go from here. Thanks Pep.

  9. It's so hard to understand how the Leafs and Carlyle put so much emphasis on defence first, but when it comes to the game itself, the defence is lousy. They are at the bottom of the league in goals allowed and have allowed the most shots on goal. And they only had 22 shots of their own. This has been going on a whole year. It seems like it's playing just like under Ron Wilson. It's not sustainable. I'm sure they can do it, but maybe the problem is that they keep focusing on what they should not be doing and that attracts more of what they do wrong. It's like you tell someone not to think about pink elephants, and that causes them to only think about pink elephants. Otherwise, I don't see any explanation. What do you think Michael?

    Take Care

    1. Hi Eli- it's true...the Leafs do spend a lot of time focussing (as they should) on playing well defensively and using a system that works. But somehow on game nights all that preparation doesn't always seem to be in evidence.

      A lot of Leaf supporters will pin this on Carlyle, but he's not out on the ice making mistakes.

      This all said, it's not as though the team is in last place. They do give up too many shots but by and large Bernier has played well enough to overcome that problem.

      To your question: are they thinking about all this too much? I wish I had an answer, Eli. But again, they keep getting points. The key question that you also alluded to is: is this all sustainable?