TORONTO – It was a frigid Friday morning in Winnipeg, the home away from home for Randy Carlyle. The Leafs were practicing at MTS Centre, spirits high after their second consecutive win against the Jets the previous night. The team was scheduled to depart for Montreal later that afternoon amid a frantic snowstorm in the Northeast.
"You guys know what right through the red-line means?" Carlyle beckoned with a grin as he paced his group through a spirited conditioning drill.
If there is a single primary reason behind the Leafs unlikely fast start (8-5-0), it is the man toiling behind the bench. Carlyle has pressed the right combinations of buttons for his club's early season success.
"He's been extremely good with this group in the sense that we've got a young team and he understands that," John-Michael Liles told TSN.ca recently. "You hear that he's tough before he ever came in and you know what, I would say that it's accurate. He's tough but fair, which is all you can ask."
Carlyle has coaxed more from the group – it's still very early – than its collective talent would suggest. Take the defence as a prime example. Half of the current composition played most, if not all, of last season in the American Hockey League. Mike Kostka is a 27-year-old rookie averaging 24-plus minutes, Mark Fraser is getting a second chance in the NHL after losing ground in Jersey, joining his fifth team in the past year alone, and Korbinian Holzer is amid the single digits of game experience at this level. And yet all have stepped in and played a role, even if circumstances have dictated exposure beyond their means. Carl Gunnarsson's hip injury required Holzer to play upwards of 20 minutes recently on a first pairing with Dion Phaneuf and in a small sample size, he has taken advantage.
It was evident from training camp that status would mean little to Carlyle. He and the organization quickly determined that Tim Connolly had been pushed out of a job by Nazem Kadri. Connolly was placed on waivers and assigned to the Marlies. Fraser gradually usurped veteran Mike Komisarek, finding a fit with Cody Franson, who had also earned greater opportunity himself and now leads the team in scoring from the back-end. Seemingly destined for a spot on the roster, Matt Frattin had a poor camp and was cut. His emergence after an injury to Joffrey Lupul is evidence of the effect the early demotion may have had. Opportunity would have to be earned.
When he joined the Leafs in early March last year, Carlyle spoke of stealing a page or two from Ken Hitchcock and the evolution of his playbook in St. Louis, working with the NHL's new youthful generation.
"He tried to bring a positive attitude day in, day out, no matter what was happening outside of the rink or outside of the playing surface or what had happened the night before," Carlyle explained of Hitchcock last April. "He was going to take a positive approach and try to do that on a day-to-day basis."
"It's not quite the old mentality of yelling at a guy every day," Clarke MacArthur concurred of the approach recently in conversation with TSN.ca. "It's tough to do that. I don't think it really works good for either side. I think throughout the league, it's evolving."
Case in point was Carlyle's handling of Phil Kessel. Not once during a dry spell that lasted 10 games did Carlyle criticize Kessel, only asking that he remain positive and refrain from outward signs of frustration. The fact that the Leafs found some success despite Kessel's meager early production – not to mention a determined effort from the 25-year-old generally across three zones – is a testament to the contributions Carlyle has coaxed from the likes of Kadri, Frattin, and James van Riemsdyk, filling in more than capably for Lupul, who remains sidelined with a fractured right forearm.
Interesting has been the construction of the roster with Carlyle in charge and the roles he's assigned various talent. Typically a proponent of the so-called top-six, bottom-six dynamic, Carlyle judged the pieces not to be fit for such a template. Kadri's emergence at camp dictated that the Leafs boast three scoring lines, a complement that has worked in the early going. But with Kadri slated as the third centre – behind Tyler Bozak and Mikhail Grabovski – Carlyle had to adapt without a regular spot for Jay McClement, the Kingston, Ontario native signed to line up as the team's checking line centre. In doing so, he thrust Grabovski and Nik Kulemin into two-thirds of a widely used shutdown unit and designated McClement for a utility role of sorts. Adamant about the need for toughness on his roster, Carlyle has also found effect in doses from the likes of Colton Orr and Frazer McLaren, although it's worth wondering whether a more useful fourth unit would ease some of the strain forced upon Grabovski and Co. in defensive situations.
At issue during the Ron Wilson era, Carlyle has generally made communication a priority. He's not yet taken to the media to publicly sting a player, keeping most informed with a direct face-to-face approach. When he felt the tenacity in Grabovski's game was lacking, he told the player as much at a morning skate in Pittsburgh. Pressing a similar button with van Riemsdyk, Carlyle asked that he grind in the dirty areas more often, a tactic that's reaped early rewards for the 23-year-old winger. Unlike Wilson and to a greater extent, Brian Burke, Carlyle has also taken steps to keep bold proclamations in check, never quite waxing poetic about the potential of any given player. In doing so, he's kept expectations from driving skyward, always a danger in Toronto.
Asked to forget the run-wild attack of Wilson's tenure, Carlyle has made attention to detail in the defensive zone a central priority. Second from the bottom in goals against last season, the Leafs rank 13th after 13 games this year.
"Things are definitely changing here," MacArthur said. "We're obviously playing a lot better defensive game. We're not going to get the shots maybe every night that we've had in the past and the rush chances, but we're clamping down defensively and we're making it tougher to play against."
Improving stability in the defensive zone means less pressure on the goaltender. Sidelined for at least the next week with a left knee strain, James Reimer was off to a resurgent start in goal, generally sturdy when the Leafs sprung leaks defensively. That (in addition to continued improvement defensively) will have to continue in the short-term with Ben Scrivens.
Carlyle has additionally demanded that his team compete harder, aspiring for contributions that are 'more than ordinary'. Those levels have been generally consistent thus far.
Despite their surprise success, it remains very early, even in a condensed schedule. Carlyle has had only a single month – with relatively few extensive practices – to impose his will and teachings on the group and has suitably described the Leafs as a 'work in progress'. Home ice for example, remains a delicate point. The first signs of his effect are clearly positive, but as he noted this past weekend, "We've had some stretches where we look like we know what we're doing and then we've had some stretches where you question if we know what we're doing" before concluding, "we're not here claiming we're anything. We're continuing to be a work in progress".