Randy Carlyle spoke with reporters at the ACC for about 20 minutes Monday morning and shed some insight into the Leafs roster heading into training camp (thanks to Declan, you can check it out here).
The most promising and immediately important news from the interview is that Jake Gardiner, who has missed a month with concussion-like symptoms, is getting better and working out. Carlyle remained hopeful that Gardiner, who tallied nine goals and 17 points in 22 games with the Marlies prior to the injury, would be back in time for training camp.
Over the past couple seasons, the Maple Leafs have appeared to mishandle concussions to Leafs and Marlies players such as Colton Orr, Nazem Kadri, John Michael Liles and James Reimer. Given this recent history, it’s a big ask by the club to expect this assertion to pass muster with the fans or journalists. Not to belabour the point, but I earnestly wonder why the team appears so cavalier with concussion protocols.
The topic of Morgan Rielly’s inclusion on the Leafs roster came up, and Carlyle affirmed that he’s not afraid to play an 18-year-old in the NHL. While that confidence is charming, most writers seem of the opinion that it is terrible management of a controllable asset on an entry level deal, especially with no preseason games for Rielly to dip his toes into. I wish there was a recent era in the collective memory of Leafs fans that could serve as a parable about not rushing defensemen selected fifth overall in the entry draft, but bothered if I can think of one.
Of no particular importance but to again prove Brian Burke to be bursting with bluster, Randy Carlyle again confirmed that the newly-acquired James van Riemsdyk will be playing on the wing heading into camp. Despite having both interest and pedigree as a pivot, his recent work history has been almost entirely on the wing. The Leafs have an abundance of centers ill-suited to the top 6, they don’t need for another.
Carlyle also mentioned that he intends to keep Joffrey Lupul and Phil Kessel together, but indicated that no other lines or combinations are set in stone. It can be easy to write that off as a canned phrase for a coach to utter prior to training camp, and it may ultimately be true. But what I took away from these roster comments is that Mikhail Grabovski may finally get a brief look playing with Kessel. While not earth shattering, there’s some evidence to support that Grabovski is worthy of top line billing, and that the team’s offense and possession numbers would benefit from it.
A corollary of the roster decisions above, it’s quite possible that Nikolai Kulemin will end up on the third line. Leafs VP of Hockey Operations, Dave Poulin, indicated to me over the summer that he viewed Kulemin – and Matt Frattin – to be versatile wingers capable of rotating in and out of second and third line roles. The inclusion of van Riemsdyk on the flank will force someone down, and coming off a down year, Kulemin is still an undefined quality. His renaissance in the KHL seems promising, though he won’t have nearly the calibre of line mates in Toronto.
Carlyle talked at length about the importance of players’ conditioning and the link between physical fatigue and mental (on-ice) mistakes. In a shortened season with less rest between games, fatigue is likely to be more notable among players. Carlyle indicated that he wouldn’t mind increased roster limits given the truncated season, but was operating under the assumption that it would remain at 23.
It will be interesting to see how the lockout will have impacted some of the veteran players’ fitness levels. With an overstock of forwards, bubble veterans Matthew Lombardi and Tim Connolly can ill afford to spend time shaking out the cobwebs. They are already question marks, and competitors such as Frattin and newcomer Leo Komarov have the advantage of having played meaningful hockey.
Ultimately, it could mean that Carlyle will rely on who is most ready, and lean more heavily on players like Grabovski, Kulemin, MacArthur and some of the Marlies’ graduates who have actually played meaningful hockey at some point in the past six months.
Another interesting wrinkle to this is the possible consequences this has for the club’s erstwhile top prospect, Nazem Kadri. At the start of the AHL season, he was raked by the organization for his commitment to fitness. Was Toronto Marlies coach, Dallas Eakins, trying to motivate Kadri? Or was he cuing him to pending realities on a Carlyle-coached team? We’ll see soon enough. For his sake, Kadri has performed beyond admirably for the Marlies this season, scoring 25 points in 26 games and often looking too good for the level of competition a lot of nights.
Also noticeable from the interview, Carlyle interacts with the media in a measured, composed way. He quipped about the media scrutiny, but answered most questions politely and placidly. He also iterated that he felt the Leafs had, “NHL quality goaltending” so perhaps his words really ought to be taken well salted.