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Siegel: Despondent Carlyle unable to put imprint on Leafs

Jonas Siegel
4/10/2014 11:44:02 PM
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SUNRISE, Fla. – At the very end of what was then an unprecedented late-season collapse, Randy Carlyle, the recently named Maple Leafs head coach, stood in front of a lectern and determined what he believed was wrong with a hockey team that had spiraled out of a playoff position in now infamous fashion.

"What's wrong with the team?" he said, repeating the question.

What was wrong, he continued, was the consistency level of the group, the work ethic, the competitiveness, the inability to win one-on-one battles, a one-and-done rush attack that was not conducive to success (and needed more cycling and offensive zone time), and lastly, a defensive game "that we feel needs the most attention paid to it."

"We feel that this group can score goals," he said, "but the defending of our net has been an issue."

Fast-forward exactly two years to the day and Carlyle's Leafs look very much the same.

Rarely have they resembled the feisty, physical group he imagined, still an inconsistent, high-risk, defensively-challenged product most nights. It's been equal parts frustrating and befuddling for the Sudbury native, who has managed to find reason for optimism on only the rarest of occasions this season.

There were close-matched games against Boston, a December loss to the Kings and a rousing swing through the challenging California triangle, but more often than not it was inconsistency – from shift to shift, period to period, game to game.

It was a house of cards he feared was doomed to collapse and eventually did. Carlyle saw the omen in October when his team won 10 games on the strength of terrific goaltending, a scorching Phil Kessel and superior special teams. "We didn't want to get too excited and we didn't want to get too hard on individuals because winning is what it's all about," he said before the 11th loss in 13 games on Thursday night. "A win's a win, you're not going to critique it."

But still he worried even as his team picked up 11 victories in 14 games before the Olympics – mostly on the strength of Kessel and Jonathan Bernier. Carlyle and his coaching staff even designated a week's worth of practice during the extended break in February to tighten up defensive-zone coverage. But the message didn't stick and the troubles continued.

Team defence remained at the heart of this team's troubles all year – cushioned last season with a superb penalty kill. Carlyle was supposed to help change that. He was the man charged with bringing order and structure to a team that favoured Ron Wilson's high-risk, high-reward brand.

But even with elite-level goaltending from Bernier – something Wilson only had for 30 or so games of James Reimer's initial rise to the NHL – Carlyle's team has actually been worse at goal prevention this season than Wilson in his final full season behind the bench – 2.99 goals per game in 2010-11 versus 3.09 in 2013-14.

In question for Nonis and new team president Brendan Shanahan is how much of those troubles lie at the feet of Carlyle – his system, player usage and preferred style of play – and how much are tied to a flawed roster, one ill fit to play his bruising, aggressive style.

Preferring a nastier edge to his teams, Carlyle wants them to grind, cycle pucks down low and be an enduring physical presence in the offensive zone. Amongst the worst possession teams in the NHL, it happened only sparingly with these Leafs. "We try to every night and then we just stray away from it," Tyler Bozak told the Leaf Report. "I don't know why it happens. I think we try and get too fancy a lot of the nights. When you look at San Jose – when we went into their building they dumped in every single puck the whole night, no matter which player it was. I think we start trying to make plays in the neutral zone and at the blue-line and kind of get away from what wins games some nights and that's what hurts us."

Why they stray from that system is part of the riddle that's mystified Carlyle.

"The system's in place and you have to execute the system," Tim Gleason told the Leaf Report, noticeably frustrated with the Leafs lacklustre team defence. "He's the boss. We've got to do what we're told and we've got to do a better job of executing [the system] at the end of the day.

"It's our defensive zone that needs work in my mind," he continued. "As a group of five we have to do a better job of shutting things down and we have such a good offence that that'll take care of itself. If we just put more focus on our defensive zone play, sticking to the system, doing what we're told and executing I think we'll be better at the end of the day."

That execution was spotty from day one – they gave up 37 shots to Montreal in the opener, a sign of things to come. And despite constant drum-beating and daily direction, Carlyle could not affect change and remains befuddled as to why. The 57-year-old admitted to feeling "helpless" when the losses piled high in recent weeks, soon to be disillusioned and embarrassed when the Leafs were finally eliminated from postseason contention earlier this week.

"You're always questioning," he said. "There's lot of questions that you're going to ask yourself."

At probably his lowest point in Tampa on Tuesday – "numb" was among the emotions he described as feeling – Carlyle seemed to shoulder some responsibility for what transpired this season, unable to enforce his imprint in Toronto. He was embarrassed for it, believing the roster had more than the little it ultimately accomplished, a better hockey club for that matter than the group that took Boston to Game 7 last spring.

His befuddlement continued in a lifeless BB&T Center on Thursday night. In spite of the fact that 30-year-old Drew MacIntyre was making his first NHL start – nearly 13 years after he was drafted – his Leafs showed up with meek energy and little fight, yielding three two-on-ones and eight quality scoring chances, according to Carlyle, in the opening 20 minutes of a 4-2 loss.

"The way we played," he said, fighting off disgust, "was somewhat surprising. I thought that we'd have a little bit more compassion for the goaltender that was going in the net for his first NHL start ... If that's all we have we shouldn't be thinking too much of ourselves in that situation."

They were the words of despondent man with no answers, whose future remains very much in doubt.

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