TORONTO – As the second worst defensive team in hockey last season, the Leafs allowed 259 goals, better than three per game or 104 more than the league's best in St. Louis.
If Toronto has any hope at all of challenging for a spot in the postseason, they must, in very short order, become a far superior defensive team to the one that took the ice a year ago. Any such improvement begins and ends with two central elements: Randy Carlyle and goaltending.
"We've talked and made the statement that it's going to just as important to prevent a goal as it is to score a goal and recognition of that is not going to be taken lightly," said Carlyle, hours before training camp began on Sunday afternoon.
When the Leafs replaced Ron Wilson with the Sudbury native last March, they were looking ahead in many respects, offering their new coach a head-start on the 2012-2013 campaign. They wanted to let Carlyle start the transformation process from Wilson, shifting toward a far more defensive approach, one that would also demand increased accountability and far greater compete. Without the crude benefit of those 18 games – which completed an incredible tailspin out of a playoff spot – the Leafs may have been in an even deeper hole ahead of this 48-game season, with not one exhibition game and only days to prepare for the Saturday opener in Montreal.
"The biggest thing with having him for that amount of games is when you come in in this situation with a short camp," Dion Phaneuf said, noting the brief six-day training camp. "Him coming in and stressing what he wanted last year at the end of the year, it's a big help to know how he is, how he runs everything and what he expects from you."
"He's a lot about communication, back and forth," Carl Gunnarsson added of Carlyle. "Make sure we can talk to the coaches and they can talk to us, not just a one-way street. I think that's good. We've got some space to talk. All the guys can say what they think."
He began tweaking the Leafs defensive system immediately upon his arrival last spring, adding further adjustments to the menu this week. Under Wilson, the Leafs pushed the pace, took risks, scored plenty of goals and often left the goaltenders at the mercy of the opposition. While still demanding aggression, Carlyle will tame down the level of risky behaviour. During a pair of on-ice sessions at Mastercard Centre on Sunday, the Leafs coach put his team through a full course load of defensive zone coverage.
With few significant improvements to the roster as of yet – save for James van Riemsdyk and Jay McClement, but notably little on defence – the Leafs have essentially laid the challenge of defensive improvement at the feet of the head coach. Whatever gains he makes will be the result of pure coaching.
"Everyone definitely has to buy in," Phaneuf said of Carlyle's system. "When you want to play a tight defensive system everyone's got to be aware of the changes that are made and everyone's got to buy into them and do them. You need to trust each other and with doing that trust each other in the system.
"I think it's no secret to anyone, good defensive teams win."
The Leafs must adopt said defence-first mentality, needing only to look at the success of last year's Stanley Cup Finals participants.
Phaneuf and Gunnarsson both expressed admiration for the way the Kings and Devils performed in last year's now forgotten Stanley Cup Final with an eye toward defence. "How they play defensively was nice to see," said Gunnarsson. "Obviously, it's maybe not the [most fun] hockey to watch for the crowd, but it gets the job done and you win games and that's what it's all about right now."
"They were rock solid defensively and it was still fast-paced, exciting hockey," Phaneuf said of the Finals participants, who both ranked amongst the top ten league-wide defensively last season.
Carlyle is known to be demanding of his players, especially in regards to effort and especially from his top players. Accountability became an issue under Wilson and stands to be a challenge for Carlyle, notably with Phil Kessel, who faltered at points under Claude Julien in Boston, a similar-minded coach to Carlyle.
Whatever gains he does coax defensively will have to jive with better goaltending. That much is obvious. For the time being, those duties will fall to James Reimer and Ben Scrivens, an inexperienced combo whose NHL contributions total 82 games. One or both may prove capable, but with such a limited track record, their contributions are at best uncertain for this season.
The Leafs have no room for further instability in goal – if they aim to reach the postseason for the first time since 2003-2004 – putting the onus on Reimer and Scrivens to take a significant step forward.
"It's not that they're not quality goalies," said new Leafs general manager Dave Nonis, days after being named to replace Brian Burke. "I think that's the one point that people miss a little bit about our goaltending is that people say they're not quality goaltenders. We don't believe that. We believe we do have quality goaltenders.
"The only fly in the ointment to me is experience."
Roberto Luongo would erase any experience question marks, but for the moment, he remains in Vancouver. Whether Luongo, Reimer or Scrivens, the Toronto crease has to solidify if the club has any hope of vaulting into the playoff conversation. The Carlyle effect runs hand in hand with any such improvement.