TORONTO — That Randy Carlyle is scratching a defenceman is not a big deal.
Rules dictate Carlyle can only dress so much mediocrity at once, so someone has to sit out.
The question really is why he keeps picking on Jake Gardiner?
And more pressingly: After the Leafs 3-2 overtime win over the Colorado Avalanche improved Toronto to 2-0 with No. 51 watching from the press box, when will he play again?
You never mess with a streak, a Maple Leafs winning streak especially, fragile as they are.
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It all seems a bit strange — given the Leafs’ high-profile commitment to advanced analytics in the off-season — that the defenceman who generated the best results based on that analysis is the one sitting out, especially four games into his new five-year, $20.25-million contract.
Is Carlyle a lame-duck head coach making one last stand on principle? A way to prove to his bosses that this is his team and he’ll run it as he sees fit until they eventually usher him out the door and onto Bay Street?
Carlyle swears it’s not personal.
“Everything you do is for the betterment of the team,” he said of his decision to sit Gardiner for the second straight game. “And sometimes it falls to where a player feels like you’re picking on him or feels like you’re being lop-sided in your assessment, but we try to support all of our decisions by having communication and reviewing it with them and showing the player what we see. We feel that that’s an advantage because we’re both on the same page, if that’s possible.”
That’s a big question, given Carlyle’s history with Gardiner.
It was at last season’s post-season post-mortem that Carlyle launched a thinly veiled attack on the 24-year-old, implying his assessment of his own game was far out of line with his performance.
Carlyle called it “shocking.”
At the time it seemed like Carlyle wasn’t likely to return and he was getting in his last shots. And then when the Leafs gave Carlyle an extension despite last season’s late-season meltdown, it seemed unlikely that Gardiner would be back.
Then he got a new contract too, one that suggested that someone inside the Leafs’ organization is a big believer in the swivel-hipped 24-year-old.
So Carlyle sitting him for two of the first four games of the season doesn’t seem like just another coaching decision.
What does he need to do to get back in the lineup?
“Play better,” said Carlyle.
He didn’t elaborate, but in singing the praises of surprise rookie Stuart Percy it’s not hard to fill in the blanks and imagine what Gardiner’s perceived short-comings are.
“[It’s] making plays for the puck and reading where the forecheck is coming from,” said Carlyle of what Percy has done to hold his spot. “It’s exiting the zone in one pass, finding the guy on the side on the power-play … [he’s] executing to a higher level than most people do. He has the ability to read situations and get the puck to people more consistently than some other people, when you review it.”
There was more of that on display against the Avalanche as Percy played 23:24, second among all Leafs skaters only to Dion Phaneuf as the rookie from Oakville logged time on the power play and the penalty kill and generally looked as if he was half-asleep most of the time, in a good way. He’s the Ambien of rookie defenceman. Everything seems calmer when he’s on the ice.
If the premise was that watching a couple of games would be the best way for Gardiner to learn, it kind of backfired, even on a night when the Leafs held Colorado to just 24 shots, a season-best.
Was he supposed to learn how to take a hook against an opposing winger moving at high speed, as the Leafs’ Stephane Robidas did with the Avs’ Jamie McGinn 13 seconds into the game?
Was he supposed to learn how to get used as a turnstile the way the Avs’ Ryan O’Reilly did Dion Phaneuf early in the second period, generating a scoring chance from behind the Leafs net out of nothing but the Leafs captain’s slow feet?
That’s the problem with Gardiner’s exile – it’s not like the Leafs back end is loaded with guys playing their best hockey or guys whose best hockey is all that good. And yet so far Gardiner’s the only one who is expected to learn by watching.
In particular Robidas has struggled in the early going for the Leafs, as you might expect from a 37-year-old who broke the same leg twice last season, played just 38 games and who got in just one exhibition tune-up before this season started.
In addition to his opening minute hook he put the puck on the stick of the Avalanche’s Matt Duchene for a breakaway early in the third period that somehow didn’t end up being the Canadian Olympian’s second goal of the night and which would likely have been the nail in the Leafs’ coffin, well before Phil Kessel’s overtime marker brought them back from the dead.
No one knows it better than him that his game has escaped him for now. Carlyle moved him off the top pairing with Phaneuf and instead played him with Morgan Rielly.
“Right now I’m always making the wrong read or making the wrong plays or the wrong pass at the wrong time,” he said. “It’s all the little things that I’m not doing right. I can’t blame anyone but me. It’s up to me to find a way to get better.”
Robidas does a convincing Yoda in both official languages and presumably can whisper calming things in Gardiner’s ear from his spot a couple of stalls down in the Leafs room — once he’s finished figuring out his own game.
He was doing his best before the game, drawing on his own experience being healthy scratched for more than 20 games in his second year with Montreal in 2001-02. He was sent to Dallas the season after.
“It’s not something you want to go through, but sometimes a little adversity is good,” Robidas said of being scratched. “It depends on how you handle it. You crumble and you feel sorry for yourself or you say ‘hey, I’m going to work on my game and whenever I get back in the lineup I’m not coming out.’ You have to take it as a challenge. In life you face some adversity, in hockey it’s the same way.”
Gardiner is facing his, at the behest of Carlyle.
The question is why?