TORONTO – Randy Carlyle is admittedly superstitious when it comes to goaltending.
“The one thing you won't get from me is the starter,” he said with a grin. “You can ask all you want. Believe me, I've done this for seven years, this is the one thing that I would ask you to accept from me that I'm not going to tell you who's starting.”
Unlike in Anaheim however, Carlyle doesn't hold a Jonas Hiller in his midst in Toronto, a number one stud he can parade out there with unquestioned regularity. In Jonas Gustavsson and James Reimer, the new Leaf head coach has at his disposal, a pair of netminders who have struggled with increasing frequency of late – certainly not helped by a series of defensive leaks either.
Carlyle is attempting to implement a more “conversative” defensive approach, but without a stingier effort between the pipes – currently third-worst in the NHL – a daunting chase to the postseason will likely fall short.
In his final days behind the bench with the Leafs, Ron Wilson appeared to grow more and more frustrated with the inconsistencies in goal, highlighted by an incredibly honest assessment last month when he lamented that “we're kind of always waiting now for something bad to happen on the goal-line and we've got to find a way to get over that.”
How Carlyle proceeds to “get over that” will be worth watching closely.
“We make a decision as a coaching staff to put the goaltender in who's going to give us the best chance for success,” he said. And in that first game it was Gustavsson, just 21 saves required en route to a thorough 3-1 victory in Montreal.
The philosophy moving forward will be quite simple.
“The goaltender that plays is not expected to go out and be our saviour,” Carlyle stated. “He's expected to give us a chance to win and that's what we ask of him. If there's one guy who separates himself and becomes more consistent at doing that then I would suggest that he is most likely to get the net.”
Logic in the short-term points to Gustavsson.
Wilson never quite found confidence in the 27-year-old, the latter's struggles the two and a half years prior certainly cause for that. Even a previously unseen stretch of sturdiness in January (2.08 goals against average, .926 save percentage, three shutouts) did little to harden his resolve for the Swede. Under Carlyle, the third-year netminder gets a fresh start of sorts.
“To be honest, I try to not think so much about it,” he told TSN.ca. “First impression is always good. But no matter if it's the first game or 50th game you play for a coach, you still want to perform the best you can for the coach, for the team, for the guys, for the fans and yourself.
“And you know if you do that you have a pretty good chance that you're going to have another game. To be honest when I go out there, the only thing I'm thinking about is just go out there, compete and battle, having fun, just try to do whatever I can to stop the puck. What's going to happen in the future if I do, that's not in my mindset at that point.”
Unlike Reimer – who is signed for two more seasons – Gustavsson becomes an unrestricted free agent at the end of the year. His place in the organization long-term is far from secure. Without much clarity in Reimer's readiness or status for next season, Carlyle could also choose to give the 23-year-old a long look if Gustavsson falters.
Sure to be focal point for improvement in the offseason, the Leaf crease is currently open for business.
1. With plenty of instruction during a pair of lengthy practices at Mastercard Centre over the past couple days, Carlyle is hoping spur immediate improvement defensively. “I think every team can play better defensively so this isn't something that we're doing that other coaches or other teams aren't doing the same,” he said. “Everybody practices defensive zone coverage, everybody practices neutral-ice defensive schemes, everybody practices their forecheck and where they're going to be and how many people they want to give up and where their third guy is going to go and their position. And we're no different. It just might be a little different from what the previous coaching staff had in place, that's all. We're going to continually focus on being somewhat more conservative as far as giving people up in the offensive zone.” The Leafs have dropped to third-worst in the NHL as far as goals at even-strength against (five-on-five) are concerned.
2. Almost a mini training camp of sorts, Carlyle has asked his new group to soak up as much as possible as quickly as possible. Challenging no doubt, Luke Schenn told TSN.ca that the adjustment isn't so unusual. “You go play with Team Canada at the World Championships or play with your club team in junior then you go play World Juniors or anything like that, you've obviously got to get used to new systems in a hurry,” he said. “So that's what it's almost kind of like. It's like getting prepared for one of those tournaments, you don't got time to waste.”
3. The Leafs can ill afford many slip-ups in the coming weeks, just 17 games remaining on the schedule, all against Eastern Conference opponents. “If we just don't focus on anything else other than our games and just try to win that, I think we've got a good chance,” Carl Gunnarsson said. “I think we only play Eastern Conference teams too, lot of teams around us so we can take some points in those games and maybe climb up the standings. I think we've got a fairly good chance yeah.” They'll continue their climb against the Bruins on Tuesday, a team that has won all four meetings this season and outscored them 23-6.
4. Dave Steckel was pleased to see his role expand in Carlyle's first game behind the bench. Steckel joined a third line checking unit with Nikolai Kulemin and Tim Connolly, logging over 15 minutes against the Canadiens. “I welcome the minutes and I just hope to prove to him that I can play those minutes,” he told TSN.ca. “It was pretty clear-cut that he wants to have a checking line on this team…It's easier to play when you have a goal as a line in mind going into the game, you know what he wants.”
5. As captain, Dion Phaneuf seemed to share a fairly strong relationship with the now-dismissed Wilson. He and Carlyle began to lay the groundwork for what lays ahead in that sense during a conversation on Monday morning. “We talked about what I felt was necessary from him, what I needed from [him] and what my expectations were as a coach to captain relationship,” Carlyle said. “It seems that he's on the same page and he understands where I'm coming and I understand where he's coming from. His role is to be a good solid teammate, to sometimes be a go-between between the coach and the players. And if there are things that I'm doing that are upsetting him or his teammates I think it's important that they have the comfort to be able to come to one of the assistants or come to me and tell me about it, let me know because it's important that I have the pulse of what people are thinking and what his teammates are thinking and what these players are th