The Leafs are all but set to make the playoffs for the first time in nine years, yet there is an inordinate amount of vitriol being directed at Toronto’s head coach Randy Carlyle, for some reason.
Considering pretty well everyone predicted the Leafs not to make the playoffs, it’s pretty funny to see the coach leading a surprising playoff appearance – and a team that’s currently fifth in the East and 7th in the League – get chastised
That’s the Toronto fishbowl for you, though.
The main points receiving attention are pretty straightforward:
- The Leafs dress goons. Often, they dress two at the same time.
- They get outshot often.
- Jake Gardiner has spent a ton of time in the minors and has struggled to get into the Leafs defense in general. This, despite the fact that the Leafs defense isn’t really that good and Gardiner figures to be a key piece on it long-term.
- Similarly, Mikhail Grabovski has been ‘wasted.’
- The Leafs have been buoyed by great goaltending, so these successes really aren’t Carlyle’s doing.
- Finally, this isn’t sustainable over a full 82-game season.
There are a few things that need to be noted here before we get into this. The first thing, and this is important, is that coaches are not God. At the end of the day, you need a good roster to succeed. Pete DeBoer, for example, wasn’t a bad coach in Florida who all of a sudden became a genius in New Jersey. He went from a bad team to a good one and the results speak for themselves.
The second thing is that the Leafs don’t have a great roster. They have a lot of good pieces and are starting to come into their own, and I don’t want to take that away from them. But if they had a good roster, people would have predicted them to make the playoffs. The defense in particular needs help still and I think everyone knows that.
With those two things in mind, let’s look at some of these points and try to come to some reasonable conclusions here.
Orr averages 6:18 per game, while McLaren is at 5:11. Basically, these are guys the team doesn’t trust to do much and due to that they play their top three lines a lot. We can debate the importance or lack thereof for enforcers until we are blue in the face. At the end of the day, what this boils down to is the Leafs have a fourth line they don’t trust to do much. Orr and McLaren do not play a lot and they definitely don’t play critical situations no matter what the situation is.
At times, dressing two enforcers has left the Leafs shorthanded. For instance, when Joffrey Lupul got hurt against the Flyers, they struggled to patch together lines because Orr and McLaren don’t give them many options.
Compare this to last season, when the Leafs had some guys with varying skills on their fourth line like Joey Crabb, Matt Frattin, Dave Steckel and Phillipe Dupuis. Those players not only didn’t give the Leafs much in that role at the end of the day, but they also would regularly play over 10 minutes a night each.
The Leafs can’t afford to play both Orr and McLaren come playoff time, and that will have to be corrected. However, if the choice is between playing a fourth line 10-13 minutes a night and cutting off time from the Leafs second and third lines which consist of players like Kadri, Kulemin, MacArthur and Grabovski, then I’d rather see those two additional top nine lines get a few extra minutes per game.
It’s not like the fourth line has really cost them many games. You can point to the 1-0 loss against the Bruins in which they were on for the only goal against. That’s a pretty valid argument, although I’ve never heard of a team winning a game without scoring a goal. McLaren also had the game winner against Boston nearly two months later. The Devils had a game where they victimized the Orr-McLaren for two goals in which they looked pretty bad. Luckily, the Leafs came back and won that game. Other than those two games, the only other time Colton Orr has been a minus player was last night against the Rangers when Rick Nash danced around Mark Fraser and buried home an elite goal.
So, at the end of the day, we’re looking at two guys who just generally don’t impact the game much at all on the score sheet either way, nor do they play much. It’s practically a moot point and appears more to be nitpicking the roster than actually talking about things that matter.
The second point about the Leafs being consistently outshot is, within reason, valid. The Leafs give up the fourth most shots per game in the league, while shooting almost five less times per game than the 31.7 they give up. That’s a problem. Is that Carlyle’s fault, though? The Leafs weren’t good in that department last year, so how much can we blame a coach for that this year when it’s basically the same team he’s working with in a year he didn’t even get a real training camp?
What has Carlyle done, then? Here is some data to look over:
Numbers as of March 30. Chart courtesy of @mORRganRielly, who will be going over these numbers in more detail in a separate post.
This data correlates directly with an article James Mirtle wrote earlier this season comparing the Leafs defensive zone system to what Jacques Lemaire deployed in New Jersey. Here’s an excerpt:
“In the past, we were a little passive on defence and allowing teams to make skill plays around us,” he explained. “Now, we’re just trying to instantly shut guys down and keep things to the outside.
“In the zone, we’re trying to tighten it up. I mean, it works. You see more and more teams [around the league] developing it.”
Statistically speaking, there are indications of the change, too. While Toronto continues to allow a similar number of shots against, they are coming from further out, on average, than a year ago.
The data charted above states that the Leafs by far give up the most shots against from over 20 feet with 712 – the next closest is 661 – but are actually 16th when it comes to giving up shots inside of 20 feet to the net.
This not only draws a parallel with what Fraser assessed in the Mirtle piece above, but Carlyle has himself also spoke about “scoring chances” versus shot counts.
Furthermore, this coincides with the Leafs leading the league in blocked shots. They keep things to the outside, “swarm” opponents and are able to get in the way of a lot of pucks because of the distance from which they push most of their shots to be from. Even more so, it works nicely with the Leafs two goaltenders that are both 6’2 and play more of a blocking style. Keep shots from distance, have the big goalie come out at the top of the crease and block shots as much as possible.
Is it possible the Leafs, who are one of the highest scoring teams in the league, are content with negating an extra few quality scoring chances per game and counting on their deep top nine to score enough? Carlyle doesn’t have a defensive roster to work with, they are still very young as a team overall and he hasn’t had a lot of time to work with the group. Chances are he’s trying to fix a few little things here and there all the while playing to the team’s strengths. Certainly, turning the penalty kill from a dud to elite this year is a large part of the team’s success and plays into this equation.
The Leafs have gotten great goaltending, and that’s the most important thing here. But they are also clearly content with allowing outside and point shots, in order to protect the high quality scoring areas. This shows in the data and meets the eye test when you watch the games.
Ah, the whole Gardiner debacle. There is little doubt that this has been a disappointing season for the talented defenseman, especially after a promising rookie season and good stint in the AHL to start the lockout year. However, he sustained a concussion and that’s when things really went bad for Gardiner. He came back for training camp and didn’t quite look himself, so they sent him to the minors to get his game back. The Leafs were rolling, so they took their time to call him back up, and once he was recalled he’s been inconsistent since. Gardiner has made some great plays offensively and generally pushes up the play, but he’s good for a glaring lapse or two defensively per game and that’s hurting his chances at playing.
Gardiner himself has said, “Last year it seemed like I could, not get away with anything, but just [be] more offensive-minded than defensive.”
Objectively, he should be in the line-up more because he’s easily one of the Leafs six best defencemen. However, it’s tough to mess with a pairing that has been solid for you all year in Fraser-Franson, and he’s not going to touch the Gunnarsson-Phaneuf pairing. That leaves the final pairing with Liles on it as the main option. Unfortunately, Gardiner and Liles play a similar style so that pairing doesn’t really mesh well.
It’s a tough balance between finding a way to get Gardiner in the line-up, and not messing with a team that’s 7-1-3 in their last 11. There are no easy answers here.
Most importantly to some, Gardiner has been very good about the whole process, saying that he needs to learn and that he’ll be better next year for it. If think they are pushing Gardiner out of the door or alienating him, that seems unlikely.
Grabovski has been a curious case. Carlyle originally played him a lot when he came here last year, including one game against the Flyers where he played 24:07.
Going into this season, however, he became the team’s shutdown center almost by process of elimination. The issue with this was shown particularly well last night against the Rangers when Grabovski turned the puck over and Nash came down and scored. Grabovski was benched afterward, leading to a season low 10:39 of ice time.
If you’re going to play a two-way forward in a shutdown role, then you have to be willing to live with some mistakes. Obviously, Grabovski is in the dog house and he’s not getting that leash.
That has to be fixed. Grabovski is a good hockey player and easily a top 50 center in the NHL when on his game. He was tied for 30th and then 22nd by himself the last two years in scoring by a center, plus he actually does play defense and works his tail off.
On one hand, Grabovski does have to play better and he shouldn’t get a free pass. He’s passing up on shots in the slot and just looks off his game in general. On the other, he’s not being placed in a situation to succeed. Against the Flyers last week, his linemates were McClement and Orr, for example.
Carlyle does have to find ways to integrate Grabovski and Gardiner into the roster better because they are two of the most talented players on the team. He doesn’t get a pass here. However, in a shortened season where things are happening quickly, I’m enticed to see how these guys are deployed next year after a full summer and training camp is conducted to sort things out. I’d be willing to bet Gardiner in particular has a much smoother season next year.
This brings us to the Leafs being buoyed by great goaltending. This is probably the worst point anyone can make. Should Randy Carlyle apologize for having a goalie that is playing great? “Sorry for having this goalie that is playing great and allows us to be more offensive and play to our team strengths because we have a bunch of scorers and few guys that are great defensively.” Should we rip on Mike Babcock because he has Datsyuk and Zetterberg? Or Joel Quenneville for having Toews, Kane, Sharp and Hossa?
The reasoning that ‘Reimer is making Carlyle look good’ makes little sense. Obviously, he’s making Carlyle look good. Reimer actually plays the games, Carlyle doesn’t. Coaches need good hockey players to win games, this isn’t rocket science.
But let’s not pretend the Leafs are getting Vezina winning goaltending, either. They are getting top 10 goaltending. If Ron Wilson got that, maybe he would have made the playoffs, too. In fairness, I regularly defended Wilson and never thought he was as bad some people made him to be, but this isn’t a Wilson vs. Carlyle debate.
It’s funny, because I was watching the end of the Boston-Montreal game from this past weekend and Claude Julien put out Shawn Thornton and Gregory Campbell with under two minutes left while down a goal. The Bruins eventually got a power play for the last 48 seconds or so and had a 6 on 4 in which they didn’t even attempt a shot on net.
I wonder if Boston called for Julien’s head in Boston? Playing an enforcer with less than two minutes left, and then a piss poor power play showing. All Julien has received in his time in Boston is elite goaltending. I guess he’s a terrible coach, too.
Every coach makes decisions we disagree with at one point or another. Carlyle is no different.
Could it last?
Finally, we get to sustainability.
I’m not going to debate whether or not this is sustainable over 82 games, because frankly, it doesn’t matter. This is a 48 game season, not an 82 game season. Carlyle isn’t coaching this team to be good next year, he’s coaching them to make the playoffs this year and they are going to.
We know the Leafs are full of deficiencies that need to be corrected. But really, most of the complaints being sent Carlyle’s way about sustainability need to be directed at the management level. Toronto clearly needs a top four D-man. They might even need two. Don’t blame the coach for playing the hand he’s been dealt.
The best way for the Leafs to improve is actual player personnel changes, not coaching changes.
Yes, there are line-up changes that can be made that will help this team over the long haul, but for now he’s going with what is working and it’s getting them somewhere Leafs fans have been dying to be for almost a decade now.
The summer is going to allow the organization to take a step back and look at what they have here before building a plan for next season. For all we know, the Leafs could simply bump Kadri up to the first line, Grabovski to the second and bring in another center, be it Colborne or a veteran, and go from there. For now though, there are just too many unknown variables for us to just sit here and rip a coach for taking a roster the vast majority thought wasn’t good enough to make the playoffs, into the playoffs.
This season is a sprint, not a marathon, and right now the Leafs are running toward the finish line looking like winners.
Notes, Quotes and ‘5 Things I Think I’d Do’ to come later on.