Leafs Notebook – March 31

Leafs Notebook – March 31

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Randy Carlyle

There is an old saying that a good coach might only help you win an extra handful games over the course of a season, but a bad coach will cause you to lose far more than you should.

Here is the question facing management right now: Did they think this was a playoff team all along, or did they always believe it was going to be an uphill battle to actually make the dance?

If they think the 2013-2014 Maple Leafs were supposed to be a playoff team, they have to start asking some serious questions about what is happening here.

This is the second year in a row this team has experienced a jaw-dropping meltdown. If the team had stayed the course from last season to this season and naturally regressed, it would be a lot more reasonable to expect them to continue to stay the course, keep the coach, and continue adding. But they didn’t.

The team made major changes after making the playoffs in 2012-13, moving out key contributors and bringing in players that suit the coach better. Dave Bolland has missed most of the season, so it is tough to judge him, but Clarkson has been a disaster to this point and already there are rumblings that he and Carlyle aren’t getting along swimmingly. If that’s the case, add him to the list with Grabovski, MacArthur, Reimer, et al.

In New York last season, John Tortorella essentially pushed out Marian Gaborik.  After bowing out of the playoffs rather easily in the second round (not even the first), the organization drew the line at him butting heads with Brad Richards. It would seem from the outside that Carlyle has already used his “I don’t want this player” card on Grabovski. Now, management has to decide if they are again going to make more major moves to appease the coach knowing last off season’s moves haven’t worked out at all (and have probably blown up in their face a little bit considering how Grabovski and MacArthur have played) and the team is actually getting worse.

The Leafs as a whole are on pace to get out-shot the way only expansion rosters do despite icing an at least reasonable line-up. Nobody expected this to be a good possession team by any means, but they are historically bad and have been dominated for long stretches of play nightly. Is it the systems being used letting the team down, or are the players simply tuning out the coach? Neither answer looks good on the staff.

In  2011-12, the season Ron Wilson got fired, the Leafs finished with 80 points after a midseason collapse. They could score, but their problems were attributed to a poor penalty kill, poor goaltending, and an inability to defend.

That was March 2012. Fast forward two years and what are the Leafs, in a nutshell?

They still can’t kill penalties, play defense, and their offense is actually getting worse in comparison to last year (3.02 goals/game last year; 2.78 goals/game this year). Except they no longer have bad goaltending. In fact, they have really good goalies.

What is the most important thing moving forward is that the organization is properly able to assess what, and who, their problems are. Everyone wants to trade everybody when things go south like this, but there are some very good pieces on this team and things to look forward to. Now it is a matter of better supplementing those pieces. If the solutions are trading away young guys like Gardiner, that’s not going to cut it.

As much as everyone wants to fire the coach and as realistic as that’s becoming, it is also vital for everyone to keep in mind that this team isn’t a great coach away from being a Cup contender. I’ve wrote about this earlier in the season, but the organization has been locking up this middling core in a weak conference  and at the same time haven’t been developing young kids in the NHL to fill out their roster on the cheap (the AHL is a huge stepping stone, but players don’t learn everything about playing in the NHL there). The management staff, too, has to take blame for the changes they’ve made, especially when you consider Burke left them some pretty significant pieces and in decent overall shape, especially cap wise.

The good news is this team isn’t miles away from contention. The Florida Panthers similarly made the playoffs, lost to the ECF champions in game 7 OT of round one,  didn’t make the playoffs the following season, and are again rebuilding. The Leafs aren’t the Panthers, though. At the heart of this team there are some fairly significant building blocks creating a reasonable foundation, but they really need to  do some work to round out the edges and maximize what’s here.

Is the current coach capable of doing that? Can the management group bring in the right pieces to take the next step?

Maybe it is up to Leiweke to decide now.

Notes

-        It’s important to always note positives at times like these. Not every single thing is bad.  If you only look at the bad, you’re going to make decisions based on emotion and lose track of the plot. In saying that, Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner have been very good lately. Rielly looked like he hit a wall after the Olympic break and he has looked a little out of gas at times, but against Detroit he was one of the best players on the ice period. Where he’s really been standing out is his play in the neutral zone, where he is able to find another gear through the middle of the rink and cut right through traffic to gain the zone. His setup to Joffrey Lupul for an easy goal was beautiful.

-        Luke Schenn was hailed “future captain” after his strong rookie season, so that should serve notice for everyone to temper expectations and not rush to conclusions based on one season, but Rielly has been very promising. It is also noteworthy that he did not play in the NHL after his draft year. This is his second season after being drafted, which sometimes can be forgotten due to the lockout. He even had a brief stint in the AHL. So far, he’s developing smoothly and it is tough to contain the excitement.

-        It was tough to appreciate this in a loss, but the play leading up to Bolland’s goal really was one of the Leafs better shifts of the season. Note the puck retrieval, winning battles, driving the net, cycling. Clarkson was a big part of this shift and Gardiner walks the line and roves intelligently.

-        That goal came from their third line, but ultimately that unit didn’t play very much. Clarkson played 10:21, Bolland played 11:33, Raymond 16:56 and Kulemin  12:05. Conversely, Bozak played the lowest on the top line at 22:26. And we wonder why the top line is gassed the next game against Detroit? It was stressed all season it would be nice to have a fourth line considering they have the pieces. It has clearly caught up to them. Kessel doesn’t have the jump he had before (and we know he can score in big games, so let’s not make that a story) and can you blame him considering the Olympics and carrying this team on his back throughout the season?

-        Against Detroit, the team called up D’Amigo and he actually played well. In the first period, the team rolled the lines, was energetic, and actually came at the Wings in waves of pressure and cycling. That was promising to see and I think if they spend the beginning of next year trying to grow a four line attack it will ultimately pay off in the long run. What’s most noticeable about D’Amigo is his forechecking and his hustle. He made a diving play to knock the puck out in the 1st period, and in the third he chipped it deep, beat the defenseman to the corner, and started a cycle that resulted in him getting a shot in the slot. He has been good whenever he’s been up. He looks like a guy they should be able to count on to play on the third or fourth line for all of next season, but again, we don’t know for sure because he hasn’t played enough.

-        I’ll wait to see what, if any, injury Phaneuf has before passing judgement. He has been bad, though. There’s no getting around that.

-        It was noted that Kadri got benched against Detroit, and on the merit of play he did deserve it (whether you bench your third lead scoring down two in the biggest game of the season is up for debate). By that token, so did Bolland for taking not only a bad penalty on an icing, but also another one to make it a double minor while down two in the second half of the game. Playing the accountability card is fine, but when it’s not equal  it really loses all credibility within the room.

-        Declan pointed this out to me during the Wings game: Franson is 6’5 and he was tops a few feet away from the much faster 5’11 Darren Helm chasing him while he was going down on a breakaway. He couldn’t have at least dived and went all out to try and stop that? He gave up the breakaway and skated back down the ice in a race everyone knew he was losing, and didn’t even really make an effort to stop the shot attempt.

-        Thought Lupul had a strong showing this weekend throwing five shots on net, scoring, and generally looking dangerous. He was forechecking hard, retrieving pucks and even dropping his shoulder trying to drive the net. That will ultimately all get forgotten, and he hasn’t had a great year, but to me he was one of the few out there really digging deep and trying to turn things around out there.

-        There was no better example of the Leafs always playing defensive than against Detroit when they started McClement-Kulemin as the combination for 4v4 play throughout the game. Those guys get a lot of unnecessary flack for being good workers that the coaches trust when really it is not their fault they are being put out there when they are. Those guys do their jobs and are solid in depth roles, but when you’re the Leafs, you’re at home, and your season is on the line, try to get goals.

-        In the bigger picture, it allows the opposing coach to dictate the pace of the game as the Leafs receive it and react to it. This stems to even just little things; when the other coach knows the Leafs are line matching, he can put out his fourth line for a defensive zone draw knowing Carlyle will respond with his own fourth line.

-        Was a tough break for the Leafs that they put Gardiner on PP1 and got scored on. When these changes are obvious for weeks and  finally happen, there is a lot of unnecessary pressure created for instant results that really shouldn’t be there. This has been a story all year when it comes to certain Marlies playing depth roles with reasonable ice time versus three minutes a night or not at all. Once these changes are finally made, everyone screams “see what happened” or “look, it didn’t work!” Hockey doesn’t work that way. You can’t just make a change for one game or so and expect to receive instant results. There are tons of examples when it comes to teams acquiring a guy at the deadline and it taking five or so games for him to feel comfortable before really playing well. It’s the same when you call up a kid or make a line-up switch, and get frustrated when it doesn’t instantly pay off. Give these moves a few games before judging them.

Quotes                                                                                                   

“We hemmed them in for most of the game, and then when they got loose at the end, it was a little bit of a track meet. We did what we had to do. … It was a 5-3 game where I think we could’ve scored 10 goals tonight. We had so many scoring opportunities, and I thought for the most part, until we got careless and started to get fancy around the net instead of burying it, that we were really playing one of our top games.”

-        Ken Hitchcock, after the game.

I don’t know if the Leafs actually believed their own quotes about “when we played our game in the third we matched up well with them,” but they are kidding themselves if they do. The Blues dominated that game so badly in the first few periods that they shut it down in the third and it got a little interesting as a result.  In reality, though, the Blues looked like they play in a different league than the Leafs altogether.

“There has also been talk inside the Leafs dressing room and outside, that Clarkson has not fit in. Not as a player. Not as a teammate. Not in any tangible way. There has been concern that Clarkson spends too much time on his investments outside hockey and not enough time on his hockey.”

-        Steve Simmons

Even though I think it’d be easy to make a case Clarkson hasn’t fit in that room, I’m not going to pretend I am in that dressing room or around it enough to know. But that line about concern that he’s spending time worrying about his money over his hockey really stands out. Again, that’s something I don’t know and won’t pretend to, but he looks out of shape. He’s routinely pushed off the puck by smaller guys and all week I was watching him take 20 seconds shifts.

“It’s not by chance, desire or intent, but we are dealing with a history and tradition here that have not been great. Sometimes, losing becomes a culture, an excuse. It almost grows into being acceptable. People have a fear about how you get out of it. The longer you learn to accept it, the harder it is to ultimately change it. It becomes a way of life. Like the old Seinfeld episode where the guy with the body odour got into the car and they never got rid of the odour. We were that car. We couldn’t get rid of it, so we had to say ‘buy a new car.”

       Tim Leiweke.

Tim has talked a massive game since coming here and has made some franchise altering moves for the Raptors and TFC that appear to be working. However, this is a Leafs city and all eyes will be on him to make changes after a third year in a row featuring a huge collapse. Nobody is accepting losing in Leafs Nation. Everybody is just pissed off. Your move, Tim.

 

5 Things I Think I’d Do                                                     

1 -     I think I’d put the lines through a blender right now and shake up just about everything.  At this point, just completely mix and match to see if you can find some interesting combinations that give you thought for next season. Something outside the box like Kulemin-Kadri-Kessel, JVR-Bolland-Clarkson, Lupul-Bozak-D’Amigo, Raymond-McClement-Bodie.

2 -     By the same token, I’d do the same thing with the defense. Pair Gardiner with Phaneuf for the entire game (not just shifts), Gunnarsson-Rielly, Gleason-Franson and see what happens. The team will throw out the company line of, “we’re not quitting, we’re still trying to make the playoffs,” but they need to start looking at combinations for next year.

3 -     I think you eventually need to get Reimer back in there, if only because Bernier is clearly hurt. He’s admitted as much. I don’t know the details of the injury or how hurt he really is, but if it’s bad or has even a slight chance of becoming worse through playing, I’d just shut him down for the season. It’s not worth it. Simple as that.

4 -     I think there will be a lot of talk of what to do next, but the first thing I’m thinking when I look at their roster and who they have under is contract is that they need to try and get rid of one of their two really bad contracts. Clarkson has six years left making over $5M. If you can convince a team to take him, pull the trigger. The other guy is Gleason. He’s making $4M for the next two seasons after this one and he’s a third pairing defender. It’s doubtful they can move either deal, but even if they are losing the trade value wise or have to sweeten the pot, it’s worth it.

5 -     I think my core is Kessel, JVR (contract is too good), Gardiner, Rielly, Phaneuf, and Bernier. Kadri is more or less there, but you have to give to get and if you can move him in a deal for a young, stud two-way center, I think I’d be hard pressed to say no. Anyone other than that is game on and available. It’s going to be a long offseason, isn’t it?

Anthony Petrielli has been writing Leafs Notebooks, also known as short stories, on MLHS since the beginning of the 2011 season. He'd rather let his work do the talking but Alec and Declan have been bugging him about writing a bio, so here it is. You can contact him at [email protected] or find him on Twitter at @APetrielli