It's showtime for Leafs
Terry Koshan, QMI Agency
|New Leafs coach Randy Carlyle has his work cut out for him, including building a relationship with sniper Phil Kessel. (GETTY IMAGES)
TORONTO - The Maple Leafs have 15 games remaining in the regular season. Playoffs? Not happening. Even if Joffrey Lupul had not suffered a separated shoulder on Tuesday in a game against the Boston Bruins, it is doubtful he would have made a difference. Randy Carlyle has four weeks to leave his mark on the club, and start making decisions on who he thinks he can go forward with next season. Here are some areas that Carlyle should be giving a fair share of his attention between now and the third-period buzzer on April 7, in Montreal against the Canadiens:
1. Building a relationship with Phil Kessel
There were times when Ron Wilson and the Leafs’ most talented forward didn’t see eye-to-eye but the course was set when Kessel was free to do what he wanted. Kessel usually was the first Leaf off the ice after practice, heading straight for the ping-pong table, and though he was responsible defensively when the season started, he was a big-time liability by the time Wilson was fired. By no means does Carlyle have to coddle Kessel, who won’t be going anywhere in the next couple of seasons, but Carlyle might have to go out of his way to forge something with him. If Kessel bristles at the suggestion he’s going to have to improve when he does not have the puck, Carlyle will have his work cut out. Still, it’s crucial that the head coach and best player are in lockstep (see Ovechkin, Alex).
Is there really much point to riding one guy now? No. Jonas Gustavsson started the first three games of the Carlyle regime and won once. With losses in the past two games, it’s time to get James Reimer back between the pipes, beginning on Saturday night when the Philadelphia Flyers visit. Whether goaltending consultant Francois Allaire is whispering in Carlyle’s ear that Reimer has fragile confidence right now is beside the point. Few people in the NHL figure the Leafs will one day be a winning, playoff team in the NHL if Gustavsson and Reimer remain the tandem, so Carlyle has to get a handle on who stays and who goes. For general manager Brian Burke, acquiring a top-notch goalie in the summer must be a priority.
3. Luke Schenn
Can Carlyle, a former Norris Trophy winner, teach the 22-year-old Schenn how to read the play with a keener eye? If so, Schenn’s inconsistent play will improve. But you can’t teach instinct, and that could be a problem. The positive is that Schenn is young and it’s not often that youth and patrolling the blue line in the NHL are quick bedfellows. For now, time is on Carlyle’s side. But he has to be careful that Schenn’s confidence does not completely erode in the last month of the season. Even if Schenn, a healthy scratch on Wednesday night in Pittsburgh, rebounds to an extent, he’s probably going to wish 2011-12 never happened.
4. Attention to detail
With Carlyle’s lengthy practices, this has started already. It’s said it’s the little things that count, and considering that Wilson always came across like everything was under control, the Leafs remain a team that doesn’t have a great attention span. Drive hard to the net. Use that extra bit of energy to win puck battles. Get your body, or stick, in shooting and passing lanes. They’re all fairly simple hockey tenets that have eluded the Leafs for long spells this season.
5. Compete level
Another facet that Carlyle has started to impact. The Leafs can expect a lot of bag skates in the coming weeks, something in practice that almost never happened under Wilson. It’s pretty bad that a coach can take over a team with 20 games left in the regular season and finds the players don’t have the proper fitness/stamina to compete in a 60-minute game. Once they have it, competition should not be a problem (at least, from a physical standpoint). Mentally, though, Carlyle could get a stiff push-back from some of his players.
Given a moment of truth, Burke might admit he wishes he had never mentioned the word back when he took over in November 2008. It’s interesting now that he acknowledged he and Wilson didn’t agree 100% on this part of the game, but in Carlyle, he has a like-minded thinker. Whether Carlyle can really get much out of the team as it stands now is debatable. We don’t mean Tim Connolly almost fighting a couple of times (don’t worry, that’s not something that is going to last). The Leafs are a soft team up front, and don’t have a defenceman who carries a true mean streak on to the ice with every shift. It’s one area that Burke probably will have to improve upon by bringing in other players.
7. Dion Phaneuf
The captain has his detractors but we’re not in the group that thinks it was a mistake to give him the captaincy in June 2010. What matters most is whether Carlyle thinks Phaneuf is captain material, but it’s difficult to see a change happening if Phaneuf’s first impression is lacking. Doubt that happens, as Carlyle and Burke come from the same mould. Phaneuf can be a defensive liability at times, but that’s not something that sets him apart from the Leafs’ other defencemen. Under Carlyle, Phaneuf should grow.
8. Overall team defence
Getting the saves helps. Clearing the puck once those saves are made? Now we’re getting somewhere. And moving that puck with efficiency through the neutral zone and into the opponent’s end for scoring chances — it’s starting to make sense. John-Michael Liles is good at knowing when to move the puck, but has taken a step back since returning from a concussion. Rookie Jake Gardiner also has the brains for it, but Wilson went to him a lot and might have over-taxed the 21-year-old.
9. The bubble boys
It’s not so much an area that Carlyle has to worry about, but more that some Leafs can’t help but hope to make a good impression in the next four weeks. We’re looking at you, Mike Komisarek, Matthew Lombardi, Joey Crabb, Nikolai Kulemin, Connolly and Jay Rosehill, to name a few. If it can be expected that Burke and David Nonis change, perhaps, one third of this team during the summer, the players mentioned will have to demonstrate to Carlyle they are worthy of sticking around next season. Ditto for both goaltenders. Komisarek could get a new lease on life under Carlyle if he can be physical without losing position. Lombardi has speed to burn, but defensively and physically does not bring much. Crabb could be interchangeable with many other players. Kulemin’s drop to seven goals from 30 is more staggering when one remembers that he is one of three Leafs (along with Phaneuf and Kessel) who have played in all 67 games. Connolly, no matter what he does, will not get anything close to $4.75 million US a season on his next contract.
10. Winning at home
If many of the mentioned areas fall into place, then becoming loss-proof at the Air Canada Centre should come naturally. The Leafs are 16-13-5 at the ACC this season, a record that is not good enough. Contending teams dominate at home — it doesn’t get much simpler than that. With only seven games left in Toronto, though, we might want to re-visit this next season.