Randy Carlyle has not been with the Leafs for long, but he’s beginning to put his stamp on this team.
Hired on March 2nd 2012, the former Ducks bench boss inherited a team on the decline and wound up finishing with a 6-9-3 record to close out the season in his first 18 games as the Leafs head coach. Questions and attention were given to things such as whether or not Carlyle, a former Norris Trophy-winning defenseman, could turn around Luke Schenn’s game, how he was using Connolly-Steckel-Crabb as a shutdown line, whether he and Joffrey Lupul could get along, if Phil Kessel could produce with him, and the intrigue of the looks he was giving Matt Lombardi and Matt Frattin on the top line.
Not yet a year later, and with a drawn out CBA negotiation delaying any potential moves, Luke Schenn is gone, so are two of the three players on last year’s shutdown line (with the other being reduced to a healthy scratch to start the year), Lupul wears a letter and has a long-term deal in his pocket, Kessel has yet to score this year, and Lombardi is in Phoenix while Frattin started the season in the AHL. Gone are the days of pond hockey, and in come the days of dump-and-chase hockey. The penalty kill looks much improved, while the power play has most definitely taken a step back. Line matching is a norm, and it appears Carlyle actually talks to his players, unlike the last guy (see Kadri, Nazem).
The final results may look similar so far to start the year, but it’s a different team being thrown out there and put together. Carlyle is trotting out what is, on average, one of the youngest teams in the league still. It’s only going to get younger once Jake Gardiner returns and maybe even younger next year when Morgan Rielly makes the team along with a potentially high pick from the 2013 draft class as well. If there was any misconceptions out there that this would be a seamless transition and Carlyle would have the magic touch all season while guiding the Leafs to a surprise playoff berth, the past week should at least temper that.
The transition alone from being a run-and-gun team to a grind-it-out and cycle-down-low team might take all season. Toronto will show flashes all year, like they did against Pittsburgh, but comparing them to the top teams in the league probably falls more in line with what happened against the Rangers Saturday, at least for now. Unfortunately, this is still a team that’s very much a work in progress. With a new coach and system coming into place now, it might actually get a little worse before it gets better.
It doesn’t matter who is the coach at the end of the day when you don’t have the horses, and right now the Leafs don’t have their horses going. Phil Kessel, you may have heard, has yet to score. Dion Phaneuf has been average at best so far even though they rely on him to be an all-star, while the Joffrey Lupul injury has done the Leafs no favours. Carlyle has a lot of work to do to get this team to play hockey the way he likes it to be played, and it’s unclear how much rope Nonis will give him as Dallas Eakins toils in the minors. The pressure probably isn’t on Carlyle to immediately turn this team around, but it will need to come sooner rather than later. While a young team that’s learning a new system is often a recipe for short-term disaster, for the Leafs sake, they’re hoping it pays off this time in the long-run.
Play Breakdowns of the Week
One Goal For: Clarke MacArthur scores to tie the game against Pittsburgh at 1-1.
Mike Kostka has become a bit of a whipping boy in Toronto among some groups, but this goal highlights some of the things he can bring to the roster to help this team. The first thing to note is his active stick in stopping James Neal off the rush. He was helped out by the bad pass to Neal, but for a guy who has been labelled slow, he kept a very tight gap on a big, skilled and fast player off the rush. MacArthur was quick on the back-check, which enabled him to be in position to knock the puck off the Pens D-man’s stick. This might not seem like a big thing, but when you think about the Leafs’ strong back-check on this particular play, in comparison to their weak back-checking against the Rangers, you can see the difference between being scored on and scoring yourself.
As the furthest man back, Kulemin also does well to get back in the play and follow the puck. The far side Pens D-man wasn’t in the zone yet, so it allowed Kulemin to go to where the puck was and he took advantage. Kulemin did well to go hard to the outside and create space for the other Leafs forwards off the rush, plus he rifled a hard pass to the trailing MacArthur, but the most underrated guy here was Kostka. When the turnover was created, instead of resting on his laurels, he charged hard up ice. James Neal skated hard to catch him, and he did more or less catch him, but Kostka still helped the Leafs a lot by joining the rush. There is an overhead view of the goal that starts around the 29 second mark, and in it you can see how, if Kostka didn’t join the rush, James Neal might have been able to catch MacArthur and stop that tip-in. Neal was right there on the play, but he committed to covering Kostka, which left MacArthur wide open. Seeing as neither Malkin or Tangradi really back-checked all that hard, the Leafs had a clear man advantage.
Other points to note are that Kulemin, as was noted on the broadcast, did well to charge the net hard. Sometimes forwards make the pass to the high man, and trail to the side of the net hoping for a tap-in pass, but Kulemin pushed hard and drove the net. On the overhead view, you can also see Kadri start banging his stick around center ice because he wants the puck badly. When he gets it – due to a nifty tip pass from MacArthur- he makes a strong play to cut in with the puck and create a scoring chance for MacArthur. Looking at it on the whole, this goal is a good example of some of the positive things Mike Kostka can bring to the roster, Nazem Kadri’s ability to create when he gets a little open space, and Nikolai Kulemin’s strength in driving the net and wreaking havoc. Clarke MacArthur, of course, also did well to back check hard and get his stick on the puck.
This is the kind of counterattacking the Leafs didn’t have against the Rangers, and it maybe could have made the difference. The Leafs’ best asset as a team is still their speed, and this is what it can do when it’s given even a sniff of daylight.
One Goal Against: Skip to 2:38:
The long story short is that the Leafs won the draw and it was a set play for Franson to ring the puck hard around the boards. The play was designed around Kessel releasing the zone to try and use his speed to get a quick chance off a transition from a faceoff in their own zone.
It all sounds so good on paper, but it didn’t work out that way. The initial breakdown is Franson not ringing the puck around the boards hard. Not only does it not get the puck out, but you can see Kessel coming back from the blue line, because he was releasing the zone expecting a puck to be flying around the boards to him. It’s not like Franson doesn’t have a good shot either, he just didn’t get much on it and that was the first failure.
Unfortunately for Franson, he only compounded the problem even further as the play continued. Franson chased Grabner to the top of the circle where Bozak and Kessel were already located. Considering there was only one Islanders forward there, he had no need to chase him so closely and abandon his post. Because he did, it allowed Nielson to take the puck down low and have time to look up and find an open man while being as relatively unharmed or obstructed as any NHLer will be in the other team’s zone.
Bozak actually did what you could reasonably expect any center to do in that situation. He went to battle along the boards, and he wasn’t giving up anything position-wise because it’s fair for him to assume that Franson will be guarding the lower area of the zone. Meanwhile, Kessel didn’t comeback particularly hard, nor did he give himself much of a chance to win a battle with Nielson before he went down and setup Boyes.
While all this happened, Gunnarsson went to the net to and then Boyes eventually charged it. Brad Boyes actually made a nifty little play to go outside-inside on Gunnarsson and get body position. That’s a goal scorers move by Boyes. From Gunnarsson’s perspective though, there’s just no reason to fall for it. He had no support from Franson on the play, so even if Boyes did go backdoor and Gunnarsson followed him, Nielson would have been able to just walk in front by himself. Thus, Gunnarsson needed to get out front and try to block the pass properly by using his stick and/or his body.
The end result is a goal Scrivens didn’t really have a chance on. Franson whiffed on a set play, then made the mistake worse by pushing up and trying to make amends, while nobody won a battle along the boards for the Leafs. It was a comedy of errors in a matter of seconds, and the two glaring errors by Franson are the kinds of things that stick in a coach’s mind when he’s deciding who should play and who shouldn’t each night.
- There’s been a huge divide among Leafs on whether or not to criticize or protect Phil Kessel, and it’s gotten heated as he starts the season without a goal in his first five games. No matter where you stand on Kessel though, it’s tough to deny this: on a young team for which he is supposed to be the best player, he has yet to be the best player for them even once this season. Maybe some of the criticism thrown his way is unfair – I’d say so at least – but there’s no way that’s acceptable.
- Forget Kessel’s lack of scoring for a second. There were two moments this week that I thought were fantastic examples of the positive and negative effects he can have on this team. His line started against Pittsburgh. Right away they dumped it in and Kessel actually forechecked hard in deep and caused a turnover, mixing it up a little and getting dirty. It was an energetic start to the game and I think the Leafs really built on that shift (people talk about fighting always pumping up a team, but how about seeing you star player actually get involved? That would have more of an impact on me). Conversely, against the Rangers, when Gaborik scored to take the lead, the Kessel line went out there and got flat out dominated right after the Rangers scored. There has to be a push back after you’re scored on; instead, the body language was all wrong, they got man handled, and the Leafs never really sniffed even a chance at tying the game afterward. Now, not all of that is Kessel’s fault, of course, but those are times when the star goal scorer can help his team just by playing hard and setting the tone. One time, he did. The other, he did not.
- One thing that hasn’t been discussed about Phaneuf’s switch from the right side to the left side is the difference it makes defensively against the rush. Playing on your natural side allows you to cut off the middle of the ice well because you stick is on the inside of the play. When you play on your off side, however, there are definitely more advantages if the player has the skill and ability to play said side. Your stick is on the outside closer to the boards when you play your off side. In this case, Phaneuf’s stick is always in his right hand, so if he’s playing the right side, his stick is already out there. That makes it more difficult to be driven around wide since your stick is already in place. Whereas on your strong side, if someone drives you wide, it requires more of a turn and pivot to stay with the forward; plus you have to bring your stick all the way across your body, and your free hand is to the outside making it more likely you put that free hand on the opposing player and thus take a penalty. Phaneuf isn’t necessarily more susceptible to getting beat off the rush while playing on his strong side, but he’s definitely not making some of the plays that he was last year, when he was a difference maker (at least, in the first half of last season).
- I can’t truly answer which side Phaneuf likes better, but he did seem to enjoy playing the right side better. It’s one thing trying to do what’s best for a player, it’s another taking him out of his comfort zone unnecessarily. It’s early so there’s no point in drawing any conclusions, but if early indications mean anything, it might be a big adjustment period. The Leafs can’t afford for Phaneuf to be merely average, he needs to be exceptional for them to succeed. That’s just the reality of the situation.
- On that note, I can understand playing Phaneuf on the left side at 5 on 5 to a degree, but I will never understand playing a lefty on the left side and a righty on the right side for a power play. The Leafs had a 50 second 5 on 3 against the Penguins, and the first 30 seconds of it were spent having Phaneuf and Kostka pass it back and forth until they realized they can’t do anything unless they switch sides. It was just a waste of time.
- If you’re going to play Phaneuf on the left side, then he has to be setup like this – from down low, for the direct one timer. The Sharks are of course an excellent team so it’s tough to compare them to the Leafs, but their power play showed two things the Leafs struggle to do: shots and puck possession. When they first enter the zone, Pavelski shoots it on net. It wasn’t a great shot, but there were bodies in the area, so he put it to the net. That’s never a bad thing. Then when the puck comes back up, what does Pavelski do? Walks the blue line hard, with a sense of urgency, passes it and sets up for a one-timer. That kind of movement and urgency is something the Leafs have sorely lacked on their power plays to start the year. It’s static passing, which any team will be happy to give up. When the Sharks cycle it down low, Pavelski comes roaring in and then kills a slapshot for a really nice goal. The Leafs really haven’t setup any one-timers like that, even though their PP1 has two players on the point that are in position to be fed passes.
The Penalty Kill:
- The penalty kill has been a completely different story. The first immediate change that comes to mind is the neutral zone play. The Leafs now stand up three players right across their blue line, blocking easy access into the zone. The extra forward roams the neutral zone in a vital role, because he has to be able to negate the opposing player from completely winding up and charging into the Leafs zone at full speed. The best way for teams to break that is to generate speed among their players who don’t have the puck, dump it in, and have them retrieve it. So far though, the Leafs have done a good job of protecting their blue line and making it difficult for teams to setup their power plays.
– The second difference is something I’ve noted in the Marlies penalty kill before: a “T” setup. That means there are two D-men down low, and then one forward high up the zone, with the other in-between the forward and the D-men. It’s actually extremely effective, and frankly really smart. The key to the PK is all about the forwards, particularly the one who is not near the puck. If you watch, and literally any penalty kill can be used as an example, when the opposing team is passing it from one D-man to the next, the Leafs forward will follow the puck, while the one not near the puck will adjust accordingly to cut off passes. So if the puck goes from the top of the right circle, to the middle of the ice, to the top of the left circle, the Leafs forward will follow that play along while the other Leaf forward basically goes the opposite way of the puck. What it does is a few things: it ensures a player is going hard and pressuring the puck carrier consistently, and it mitigates the amount of stops and starts a player has to do on the penalty kill. That helps considering the Leafs have really only used four main penalty killers (Komarov, McClement, Bozak and Kulemin). Against Pittsburgh there were numerous times when Letang had the puck in the middle of the ice, McClement would pressure him, and even though Letang would get the shot off, Bozak would be right behind McClement and easily block, then clear, the puck.
- This is why it was nice for Komarov to come over and play with the Marlies. The Marlies basically run the same PK (except theirs is more condensed), and it took Komarov some time to grasp it. On one particular play against Lake Erie, he was beat really bad when he overcommitted and got 360’d around by Tyson Barrie before he scored.
- Thought the Rangers was a perfect example as to why Matt Frattin got sent down to start the year. Carlyle, and even Eakins at times, have been harping on him to be more physical for quite awhile now. It’s no secret that the Leafs have a small group of forwards, so when they’re playing against a big team like the Rangers, they need their guys with size/strength to play with it. Frattin finished without a shot on net and only played 12:05 in a game that he was basically a non-factor in.
James van Riesmdyk:
- I also thought Nash’s play in that game was a great example of what the Leafs hope JVR can one day become. Nash was a dominant force all game creating chances, driving the net and being physical. JVR is a goal scorer right now, but he needs to round out the rest of the game, particularly the physical part of it. The good thing is that he’s young and power forwards traditionally take a longer time to develop. If the early returns on JVR mean anything (4 points in 5 games) then he’s well on his way. Don’t think this goal by JVR got nearly the credit that it deserved. Tipping the puck in front of the net, and then having the ability to re-track it, get his stick on it, and put it past a top end goalie right before he got hammered, is a ridiculous skill. Being in front of the net is not a fun place to be, and it is hectic when the puck is there. That’s a great flash of the net presence the Leafs want JVR to become. It was a big difference from the backdoor tap in pass he whiffed on from Phil Kessel against Buffalo during a 5 on 3.
- You can’t blame Scrivens for the loss against Buffalo, especially when one goal is a lucky bounce off of a body in front, but when Miller is standing on his head on one end, you need to get a really good save in your net at some point. He had that chance against Pominville but got beat badly. Nobody is putting that loss on Scrivens, but you do need big saves to win against good teams.
- One thing that was great in the game against the Sabres was Bozak in the faceoff circle. He won 85%, but most importantly, he won every draw in the last two minutes. On a lot of the Leafs faceoffs during the power play, the Leafs are simply having the center tie up the other guy off the draw, then having the wingers come in and scoop the puck out. The other team is a man short, so they might as well take advantage of having more guys on the ice. Scrambled draws also make it more likely that ridiculous hand on the puck during the faceoff penalty might be called.
- Time to give some credit to where it is due: Against Pittsburgh, while killing a penalty, the Leafs won a draw in their own end and Mike Komisarek wound up to ring the puck around boards as he saw Chris Kunitz charge at him. He took the hit to make the play, and Kunitz took a penalty. It’s one thing to say you’ll take a hit to make a play, it’s another to actually do it. Komisarek really got hammered on the play, too.
The Little Things:
- It didn’t get much attention, but at the end of the Montreal game, Grabovski got kicked out of the faceoff circle with 7 seconds left. Kulemin went in to take the draw and that caused Phaneuf to switch sides with Kostka. This happened right after a timeout, and the Leafs were clearly prepared on what to do should Grabovski get kicked out of the draw. It’s a little thing, but it’s a big thing, and it’s excellent attention to detail from the coaching staff.
“I’m getting the luxury of having what Dallas has developed.”
- Randy Carlyle on the work Dallas Eakins has done to develop Nazem Kadri.
Something tells me this won’t be the last time Carlyle says this.
“The injuries, yes, there’s always risk. One of the things we looked at was how hard is he prepared to overcome those [injuries]”… “I remember last year when I asked Joffrey to come to Europe to join Team Canada, he said no because he needed to spend more time to prepare for this season — he’s very, very focused in terms of his body right now and being healthy.”
- Dave Nonis after the Leafs extended Joffrey Lupul, a few days before a Dion Phaneuf shot broke his forearm.
Call me crazy, but if a guy doesn’t want to play hockey in May because he needs to start preparing his body for the next season that starts in September, I would probably view that as a warning sign not to give him a long-term contract versus him being focused on being healthy.
“I thought Reims was unbelievable tonight. We kind of hung him out to dry.”
- Dion Phaneuf commenting on James Reimer’s play after a 5-2 loss to the New York Rangers.
This is an early candidate for understatement of the season.
5 Things I Think I’d Do
If I was the Leafs coaching staff:
1) I would go back and watch some tape of Cody Franson from when he played on the Nashville Predators. Barry Trotz was a fan of him, and it’s pretty crazy to think watching Franson right now that he was once a “Trotz” guy. Since arriving in Toronto, Franson has talked about becoming a top 4 D-man regularly, but right now he is struggling to be an everyday NHL player. There has to be something missing here because he’s way too big, talented, and established as a player who was a regular on a perennial playoff contender to struggle the way he has.
2) I think if I was playing a team with only one line that scares me – like the Rangers – I’d put my five best defensive players together and do everything in my power to make sure that I make the rest of their team beat me. In the Leafs case, the best they could do is probably put Komarov and Kulemin with McClement on a line and pair up Gunnarsson with Phaneuf, then hope for the best. Instead, Kostka-Phaneuf got abused, and the Leafs got caught with the Kessel line on against them far too often. The Gaborik-Richards-Nash line combined for 8 points, and Staal and Del Zotto each had 2 points.
3) I think I’d run with Reimer right now until he gives me a reason not to. He played his first two NHL games in 10 months last week, and looked good in both of them.
4) I think with Phil Kessel not scoring yet this year, I’d look to put the team’s second most talented player – Nazem Kadri – on the ice with him more often. Whether that means Kadri gets shifts at center with Kessel, or on the wing with Bozak and Kessel, it doesn’t matter to me. With Lupul out Kessel has been struggling to even create scoring chances, and it hasn’t helped that their power play has been terrible, too.
5) I think, even with the season being shortened to 48 games, I’d probably relax about the early results. It’s literally been a week, with still a relatively new coach and a roster in transition.