TORONTO - Randy Carlyle was candid enough to admit he was nervous.
That was before he watched the good and the bad and the deficiencies of his Maple Leafs team all in one game on his fourth night of the rest of his coaching life. He doesn’t want to look at old games on tape. He doesn’t want to have any preconceived notions about his group. He wants to learn this team from Saturday night on.
And what he’s learned so far is there is much work to do — because frankly, the previous coaching administration left behind something of a mess.
He won’t say that. He isn’t here to castigate Ron Wilson. But what’s clear from Carlyle’s first four days on the job and listening to his words is this: He has to remake this team and mould it into something it has never been before.
The Leafs have to learn how to play in their own end of the ice. Tuesday night they gave up five goals against — the eighth time in the past 10 games they have given up four or more goals against.
“You can’t play that way,” said Carlyle. “Our offence is good enough.” Quick translation: their team defence, something Wilson rarely stressed, is not.
It isn’t just defensive zone coverage that Carlyle is looking for. He wants the Leafs to compete harder as a group, especially in one-on-one situations. He wants them to be tougher on the boards. He wants them to go to the net with a vengeance, the way the Boston rookie Jordan Caron did Tuesday night (Caron, for the record, was a late first-round draft pick chosen 18 picks after the Leafs selected Nazem Kadri).
“We have to correct this as a group,” said Carlyle, who has watched the uneven Leafs through two games and enjoyed their speed, their ability to generate offence, their spirit as a group, but at the same has cringed — and rightly so — about how much he has to undo what this team is used to doing. This is start over time for the Leafs, who lost points last night to the ninth place Washington Capitals. This is loss one in the Carlyle chase: They can afford four more losses and that’s all. After that, you can declare them officially out of the Eastern Conference playoff race.
But this was first night, first home game, the first time for butterflies at the Air Canada Centre. It doesn’t yet feel like home for Carlyle, even though that was a surprisingly loud mid-week crowd for Toronto. It doesn’t yet feel like home when he hasn’t had time to set up his office, isn’t sure how all the equipment works around the dressing room, isn’t certain where to go around the Air Canada Centre and even has to figure out exactly where he has to go to get his morning hockey staple of peanut butter, toast and coffee to start the day.
It will take time. This is a team so immature when it comes to basics such as neutral zone play, forechecking effort, conditioning, not running around in the defensive zone the way the Leafs managed in their closest game this season against the Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins.
“We’re supposed to be aggressive,” said Carlyle. “We’re supposed to be hard hitting. That’s how you play the game. Our compete level is the thing that’s going to turn this hockey club around ... We had a lot of positives in the hockey game.”
Just not enough to get a win or beat the slightly sloppy Bruins.
So was he at all nostalgic about returning to the Leafs as coach after beginning his NHL career here as a player? “If nostalgic means nervous, I guess it would apply here,” he said.
This is about as revealing as Carlyle will get. He has shown a different side of himself in four days on the Leaf job. He has been more open, more honest, more forthcoming, more personal and personable, than he ever was at any time in Anaheim. He hasn’t been gruff or angry or short yet — at least not to the outside world.
He has worked hard, inside the dressing room, outside the dressing room, in cultivating who he is and what he demands this team to be. These are the first days of kindergarten. There is so much for this Leaf team to grasp, to comprehend, to change. They have to learn to walk before they can run.
And now Carlyle has a win and a loss and a growing dossier of what is required for success.
“As a coach, you’re never comfortable. That just doesn’t exist in our world.”
Not with this team. Not in these circumstances.