March 21, 2012
Leafs No. 1 need? A shrink
By Lance Hornby, QMI Agency
Does Bad Boy sell a couch big enough for 23 Maple Leafs to lay back and talk about their many problems?
Before Brian Burke expands his bloated hockey department by one more body, he’d be wise to add more team psychologists. Judging by their play, their body language and the hang-dog look after Tuesday’s post-game meeting (those few brave enough to face the media), many Leafs have devolved from truculent to terrified when faced with adversity.
From modest gains last week when they won twice and showed some cohesion, the Leafs might never recover for the rest of the schedule from a 48-hour thrashing by Boston and the Islanders. They were too quick to get in the panic room and even then failed to shut the door. The feared hockey term ‘fragile team’ was thrown around by the low-rung Islanders after watching Toronto’s third-period collapse on Tuesday. Shattered confidence was the theme when the Leaf room finally opened after 20 minutes.
Coach Randy Carlyle did not dispute he has a group that seems afraid of its own shadow at crunch time, but is as mystified as anyone at the complete change in character from the team that skated off the ice Saturday in Ottawa, 3-1 winners.
“That’s what you try and capture — where did it go?,” Carlyle wondered. “Part of Monday’s mental aspect (the 8-0 Boston Massacre) has some lingering effects, hopefully the physical aspect didn’t. It just seemed the mistakes we made zapped the energy from our game, forcing us to play too much defensive zone coverage. The snowball effect of mistakes becomes magnified.”
Carlyle led off the post-game meeting with his observations – we can guess he was blunt — and said he sat back to listen to the players explain themselves.
“It’s hard to explain,” forward Matthew Lombardi said later. “It (the answer) is in the room. We played a couple of good games and somehow it got away from us.”
But never mind the past week, winger Joey Crabb was asked how a team that was positioned fairly strong for a playoff spot in early February has lost 17 of the past 21. The Leafs hadn’t lost more than three straight up to Feb. 11
“I hope we’re not feeling sorry for ourselves, but it seems like that a little bit,” Crabb said. “We need to pick ourselves up, not in a happy way, but just get out there and do it.”
This collapse should raise plenty of alarm bells for Burke, quite apart from being the fourth straight year out of the playoffs on his watch and the widening talent gap to get in. Why aren’t captain Dion Phaneuf and the veteran leadership group having more impact? Why are the big free agent salaries and the contract extensions he doled out among the worst offenders in this slide? Why has all the coddling of this team by management and the allegiance they take for granted every year, not been re-paid?
Fans are back to jeering the Leafs for every easy save, each paltry shot on goal (less than 20 in three straight games), wearing bags on their heads and starting chants to have Burke removed. That’s spooked the players, too, clouding all those comments about the joys of playing in the ‘centre of the hockey universe.’
Carlyle is obviously taking notes at some of the egregious errors he’s seen and attaching sweater numbers to them for a summer clean-up. The first phase is seeing who can best follow his new edict in the remaining eight games.
“Get an understanding that this is the way we expect to play from a defensive aspect,” he advised. “The competitiveness that we’ve been able to display for periods at a time is going to be expected for 60 minutes. There is a template that we’re trying to create as a coaching staff to make sure there are no grey areas on what’s to be expected. We have to make sure it becomes first nature, not second or third nature.
“When we’ve done it right, we’ve had some success, been able to create a good feeling of reward for the work ethic. But as of right now, I would say the confidence level is very (low), close to the first game I coached in Montreal. It’s like it goes away on this group.”
It will take a lot of work on mind and body to bring it back.