TORONTO - Randy Carlyle identified three assets in David Steckel which made him an ideal candidate to centre a new-look checking unit.
There was his size; listed at six-foot-six and 215 pounds - his faceoff handiwork; number one in the NHL on home-ice at 64.5%, tied for fifth overall at 58.2% - and a stable reputation in both zones.
"All those three things made it easy for me and for the coaching staff to make a decision," Carlyle said following practice on Monday. "You get a six-foot-five centre that can control the faceoff circle, kills penalties, takes all your important draws, is good on the defensive side of [the ice]; he's just going to get more of an opportunity and he's getting more of an opportunity because he's earning it too."
Headlining a newly formed shutdown unit charged with slowing the opposition's best, the 30-year-old Steckel has seen his opportunity grow considerably under the Leafs new head coach, topping out with a career-high of nearly 23 minutes against New Jersey on Friday.
"In this opportunity, it's great," Steckel told TSN.ca modestly of the uptick in minutes. "As long as I keep playing well, I'll hopefully keep getting the opportunity and that's what I'm focusing on game after game."
Carlyle took the reins from Ron Wilson in early March, intent on sealing the gates defensively. Rigorous in his quest to match lines, he immediately assembled a group of checkers - initially Steckel, Tim Connolly and Nik Kulemin - pulling them aside prior to his first game in Montreal with a set of instructions and expectations. Any doubts that may have existed with the arrival of a new coach were quickly erased.
"Right from the start, he was like 'This is what I expect from you. This is what I want.'" Steckel recalled of Carlyle's initial conversation with the group. "I haven't looked astray since he said that and every game it's been a new challenge and it will continue to be a new challenge if I'm in that role. It's one that I'm going to pride myself on making sure that I'm there for him to depend on."
Formerly a scorer at Ohio State University, Steckel has averaged nearly 16 minutes under Carlyle - up from the 12 or so he saw under Wilson - teaming with Connolly and Joey Crabb as a nightly fixture opposite whichever line may pose the biggest threat. On Saturday against the Rangers, it was the top trio of Marian Gaborik, Brad Richards and Carl Hagelin, whom they managed to keep off the scoreboard - Gaborik scored in the third period opposite the Leafs fourth line - while chipping in with a pair of goals on the offensive end.
It's a role that Steckel is relishing, one that he's not played with any consistency since late in the 2008-2009 season, one-third of a Capitals trio - Brooks Laich and Matt Bradley the others - charged with opposing the Rangers and Penguins top threats in the playoffs.
Changes are certainly on the horizon for the Leafs this offseason following a catastrophic fall from the postseason picture. All that remains with six games left is a sliver of opportunity, the chance to carve out a preliminary role under Carlyle heading into next season.
"I would love to be a defensive two-way centre who can still put points on the board ... and be dependable on that line getting however many minutes a night," Steckel concluded. "At the same token, whatever the team needs to win."