TORONTO – Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle admits he rode Dion Phaneuf too hard on Saturday night against the New York Rangers. The Toronto Maple Leafs captain played 32 minutes and 38 seconds during the 5-2 loss at Madison Square Garden.
"I don't think that Dion's ready to play 30-plus minutes and he played 32 in New York," Carlyle said following Monday's practice. "So we have to take responsibility for that as a coaching staff."
Carlyle matches lines more than most in the NHL, but that was not the only reason Phaneuf saw the ice so much.
"I felt we should have him on for every defensive zone face-off and then, when we didn't execute off the defensive zone face-off to get the puck out of our zone, we got trapped in our zone too many times with him on the ice. Again, that's a call that has to come from the coaching staff. I don't think it makes much sense to have him play 32 minutes," Carlyle explained.
When Phaneuf was out on the ice, he was usually facing New York's $22-million line of Marian Gaborik, Rick Nash and Brad Richards. That tough assignment led to a -4 rating, which was his worst since joining the Leafs. His last game with such a slanted number on the unhappy side of the plus-minus index was January, 18, 2010 when he was also -4 while playing for the Calgary Flames against the San Jose Sharks.
Phaneuf is -7 in Toronto's last two games and a team-worst -8 overall.
'I Take Responsibility For That Number'
"It's not something you're happy about as a player, as an individual or as a team," Phaneuf said. "I take responsibility for that number and I've got to be better to help our team be better."
But even as the goals against pile up, Phaneuf keeps playing more and more. Only Los Angeles' Drew Doughty (29:10) is averaging more time on the ice than the Leafs' rearguard this season.
"As a player, you go out when you're told to go out," Phaneuf said. "You don't ask questions. Sometimes you play a little bit more and sometimes you don't play as much, but as a player you focus on, when you do go out there that you do your job."
Phaneuf's average playing time (27:56) is up 2:39 from last season. The increase is even more notable when you consider this year he has been playing on the left side (he usually is on the right) and with a rookie partner in Mike Kostka, who is averaging 25:44.
No other Leafs defenceman averages more than 20 minutes a night. It's a sign that Carlyle isn't overly confident in his other pairings.
"I'm no different than any other coach," Carlyle said, "when you trust people you put them in situations where they get to play more. It's the old adage where it's like the chicken before the egg. The coach will say, 'You'll play more if you play better,' and the player will say, 'I'll play better if you play me more.'"
Here is the average ice time for Toronto's defencemen:
Dion Phaneuf 27:56 (5GP)
Mike Kostka 25:44 (5GP)
Carl Gunnarsson 19:44 (5GP)
Jake Gardiner 19:28 (2GP)
John-Michael Liles 18:04 (5GP)
Korbinian Holzer 15:09 (1GP)
Mike Komisarek 15:08 (3 GP)
Cody Franson 13:44 (2 GP)
Mark Fraser 7:44 (2GP)
'It's All Relative'
Kostka laughs when informed he's averaging more ice-time than Boston's Zdeno Chara, Montreal's Andrei Markov, St. Louis' Alex Pietrangelo and Detroit's Niklas Kronwall among others.
"It's all relative," the 27-year-old said. "I'm aware that I'm logging a lot of minutes. It's not something where I sit there and compare myself to other guys. Every team has a different makeup and situations are different. I feel good. I feel confident still in my role here, whatever role they put me in and if that means I'm playing 31 minutes on a nightly basis... I know I'm in the best shape in my life. It's not like I'm out there feeling tired by any means."
But it is hardly ideal to have to rely so much on a guy who, until now, has been a career minor leaguer. And Kostka admits he is still picking up on little things here and there (stick and foot positioning in certain situations for example) while playing with Phaneuf.
"Everybody's got to pull their own weight," said Franson. "Neuf and Kost played a lot of minutes and they will play a lot of minutes. That's just the way our team's built and, you know, those guys have a big job to do. They take care of the first lines every night and that's not an easy job to do so it's up to us, the rest of the group, to pull our own weight and make the job a little easier on them."
Gardiner's Health a Big Question Mark
A big issue right now is the health of Jake Gardiner, who is still trying to regain his form after sustaining a concussion while playing in the AHL on December 8. He suited up in two games for the Leafs last week before being sent down to the Toronto Marlies when it became clear he wasn't the same player who wowed Leafs management and most of the NHL community with a solid rookie campaign.
Gardiner practised with the Leafs on Monday, but is unlikely to play on Tuesday in Buffalo. He may rejoin the Marlies once the AHL All-Star break ends for a conditioning stint.
Every person responds differently to a head injury. Last year, Liles and goalie James Reimer both struggled mightily to get on track after concussions. With that in mind, it's hard to predict when Gardiner may be back at the top of his game.
In the absence of Gardiner, the door is open for a number of blue liners to step in and fill the void and earn a measure of redemption. Both Franson and Komisarek never seemed to generate much trust with former head coach Ron Wilson and spent a good chunk of time in the press box last year. Both are looking to have bounce-back seasons. Ditto for Liles, because of the aforementioned concussion.
Rotation System Takes Getting Used To
Carlyle has rotated players in on a nightly basis. The only constant through five games seems to be the Phaneuf-Kostka pairing. Komisarek has played three games while Franson and Fraser have each played two. Gardiner has played two while Korbinian Holzer got into one before being sent down to the Marlies.
This can make it hard for guys to get in a rhythm.
"Obviously it's easier when you're playing," said Franson, "but part of being a professional in this sport is being able to come into situations like that and be comfortable and perform."
"I've been playing with different guys basically every game here," said Gunnarsson when asked about generating chemistry, "but mostly with [Komisarek] and we're trying to find something. It might take some time, but we're trying our best and we'll work hard on that."
Komisarek will miss Tuesday's game in Buffalo after sustaining an eye injury during Monday's practice. He is day-to-day.
Gunnarsson played mostly with Phaneuf last season, but Carlyle split them up to start this year in an attempt to create more balance among the pairings.
"Every guy's a good player," Gunnarsson said. "We just got to get them pumped up with confidence and just make sure he plays his game. There's not too much you can do about it just try and help him out as much as you can and we'll find each other eventually."
Carlyle has been up front with his players about his plan and why guys are getting in on some nights and not others. That sort of communication was lacking last year, which allowed frustration to build up.
"Some of the times the toughest thing about being in this sport is trying to figure what the reason is for not playing," said Franson. "When you're told the reason it makes it a lot easier to go about your business the next day and try and focus on those things and stay ready."
Gunnarsson Banged Up
Another issue on Toronto's blue line is the health of Gunnarsson, who is dealing with a few bumps and bruises.
"Stuff happens during an intense training camp and it's no big deal," the Swede, who leads Toronto with a +3 rating, said. "I'm playing and, yeah, as long as I'm out there in games that's the important thing."
But Gunnarsson does admit he has not been at the top of his game.
"Some parts have been good and some parts have been, well you know, I got to improve," he said. "I'll look at some video and try and step it up."