NEW YORK – On the eve of training camp, Leafs general manager Dave Nonis expressed concern that the current construction of his roster might just lack the edge and stature to fit the style of Randy Carlyle, additionally unable to compete against the Eastern Conference elite.
"It doesn't mean you need players that can only bang," Nonis said in early January, "but when we look at some of the teams that we have to play against and how their roster is constructed it makes it more difficult when you're battling against teams that are built that way and we're not able to compete night in, night out."
A Saturday night beat-down at the Garden offered such an example.
The Rangers banged, bullied and sped their way past the Leafs – who fronted an unlikely 2-0 lead – eventually crushing the will and hold of their retreating opponent by a 5-2 final. "They're a team that's got lots of size, they like to bang and they're fast," Dion Phaneuf said after the game. "And they kept coming. We were hanging on, hanging on and hanging on and eventually they just kept coming and broke us."
Especially damning was the imposing New York front line of Marian Gaborik, Brad Richards and Rick Nash, the combination of speed and size far too much for the Leafs to handle, be it down low in the corners, through the neutral zone or square in front of James Reimer (37 saves). Carlyle tried and tried again with the pairing of Phaneuf and Mike Kostka, but they, along with the proposed shutdown line of Mikhail Grabovski, Nik Kulemin and James van Riemsdyk, proved no match at all.
The Leafs coach had no other answers. His team was simply not equipped to compete against a roster of the Rangers caliber.
"We were defending and dumping the puck out into the neutral ice and then defending, dumping the puck into neutral ice," Carlyle said. "It's hard to get your game going when you're defending and changing."
Offensively, the Leafs barely mustered anything at all, spending little to no time in the Rangers zone while totaling just 17 shots. Carlyle has been emphasizing more of a grinding, physical game down low, but his forward complement might not be fit for such a mold. Among their current top nine forwards, not one can be considered an especially bruising presence. And against a group like New York – fronted by the imposing Ryan McDonagh, Dan Girardi and Marc Staal – that is a recipe for disaster. Phil Kessel managed four shots, but was held completely in check, without a goal for the fifth consecutive game to start the season.
It's the composition of the defence, however, that might have proved most challenging for Carlyle. He ran his top pair hard on Saturday, stretching Phaneuf and Kostka (only his fifth NHL game) about as far as they could go before the home side finally broke through in the third; Phaneuf logged nearly 33 minutes followed closely by Kostka at 31-plus. On a night such as this, against an opponent of this quality, Carlyle rarely appeared comfortable turning to the likes of John-Michael Liles (13 minutes), Mike Komisarek (14 minutes) or Mark Fraser (6-plus minutes) consistently at even-strength.
The Rangers are quite clearly in a different talent bracket than the Leafs, one Toronto will eventually have to mold itself to compete against. Whether in goal, on the blue line or up front, New York is considerably more talented. But if the Leafs are to move in the direction Carlyle wants to play – emphasizing physicality and compete defensively – gradual change will have to come. If Saturday was any indication that change could come sooner than later.
1. Reimer was terrific in just his second start of the season. The 24-year-old was the sole reason the Leafs led by a goal after two periods, stopping 24 of the Rangers first 25 shots. "I thought Reims was unbelievable tonight," Phaneuf said. "We kind of hung him out to dry." Keeping his team ahead or tied for 50 minutes-plus, Reimer saw New York finally pull ahead with barely seven minutes to go in the third. "Tonight was pretty frustrating," he said, noting the lost lead. "You like to close that out, but sometimes just not the way she goes. You look at the positives. You look how you battled and worked and how you felt throughout the game and different saves, save selection and what not. I feel alright, but wish we could've pulled this one out tonight."
2. James van Riemsdyk scored his third goal as a Leaf in the loss. Stationed in front of Henrik Lundqvist, the 23-year-old banged home a rebound on the powerplay. As for combating a unit like the Rangers, one with so much size and speed, van Riemsdyk offered one clear-cut and obvious solution. "When they get in the zone easily and set up their cycle game they're a pretty tough team to defend," he said, "but when we don't let them get the zone easy that makes our job a little bit easier."
3. Kostka has now logged 20 minutes or more in each of his first five NHL games. The 27-year-old said Saturday morning that he wasn't surprised by the level of adjustment required at this level. "I was aware that the pace of the game was going to be quicker and I'd be dealing with guys that were more skilled," he said. "When you're on the ice with guys like Sidney Crosby, [Evgeni] Malkin and [John] Tavares and those guys, you definitely realize it's a skillset that you haven't played against before." Kostka identified at least one element of his game that needed tweaking ahead of the Rangers action. "Last game I had some giveaways where mentally I wasn't moving the puck as quick as I could have and that was something I definitely want to sharpen up on," he continued. "Obviously the play moves quicker, guys move quicker, so you have to be able to adjust and make your own plays quicker."
4. Their roster may not ooze with truculence, but Mike Brown and Colton Orr continue to bring toughness, just not the type that can drastically affect a game. Brown and Orr scrapped with Arron Asham and Mike Rupp in the opening period on Saturday, giving the Leafs six fights this season, including at least one in four of the five games. Orr is tied atop the league with three fights, Brown just behind with two himself.
5. Two games after his hasty return to the lineup, the Leafs decided Jake Gardiner could use some additional tune-up time. The 22-year-old was assigned to the Marlies on Friday afternoon, joining the club for a Saturday home date against Wilkes-Barre Scranton. "We felt that if he wasn't going to play in our game tonight that it would be best served that he go down to the American Hockey League and get his game back to where it needs to be," Carlyle said before Saturday's game against the Rangers. "We know that he's going to play on our team, it's just a matter of when." Missing his usual jump and timing after a month-plus on the shelf with a concussion, Gardiner didn't look right in either of his games back with the Leafs. "We know his number one asset is his ability to move around the rink," Carlyle continued. "I thought the first game in Pittsburgh it was quite evident that he didn't have his legs underneath him. And I thought in the game in Toronto against the Islanders, he skated better but his decision-making was one where that's not Jake Gardiner. That's not the Jake Gardiner we've become accustomed to know."
Quote of the Night
"We were hanging on, hanging on and hanging on and eventually they just kept coming and broke us."
The Rangers outshot the Leafs 42-17, including a 14-3 margin in the first.
64:11 – Total minutes logged by Phaneuf and Kostka against the Rangers.
The Leafs visit the Sabres on Tuesday for the second matchup between the two clubs this season. Buffalo won the opener in Toronto a week ago.