SUNRISE, FLORIDA – Randy Carlyle leads with a warm handshake, and calls you by your first name.
Inside the pressure cooker of all pressure cookers — a Toronto Maple Leafs team that is in absolute free fall — he is looser than you’d ever imagine a man this intense could be.
His Leafs hadn’t scored in more than 157 minutes of game time, and their playoff chances were worse than bleak. But there was Carlyle, leaning against a wall, talking openly with a couple of reporters a couple hours before last night’s 5-2 loss in Florida.
They said he was a grouch in Anaheim, but he looks nothing like it thus far with Toronto.
“I want to come to the rink — stole this from Ken Hitchcock when he talked about his new approach — (nowhere) near any negative from the day before,” said Carlyle. “I want to be positive and be about getting better. Always from a positive frame of mind.
“Before, I would drag things from game-to-game around, and I think it’s important that’s one of the things that I learn and change right off the bat.”
That effort is getting seriously stress-tested these days, as the Leafs looked listless Tuesday. Twenty minutes after the game players had yet to remove half of their equipment, Carlyle’s post-game assessment having clearly been followed by some soul searching among the players.
“We gave up five goals. You can’t give up five goals and win in the NHL,” Carlyle said after the game. “My message (to the players) was blunt. We can’t kid ourselves. We didn’t play to a level we’re capable of playing to.”
Until Tyler Bozak scored late in the second period Tuesday, the Maple Leafs had gone almost 10 periods of hockey — 196 minutes, 26 seconds — without scoring a goal.
They’re now 2-13-2 in their last 17 games, and their mathematical chances of making the playoffs had dropped to 2.5 per cent before they took the ice Tuesday in Sunrise.
“I have to be different in some ways,” Carlyle said, comparing this job to the one he held for seven seasons in Anaheim. “The personnel isn’t the same. It’s a younger group. It’s important for them to get an understanding of what I expect on a daily basis. My coaching staff has to deliver the message: ‘This is how we want things done. And we’re not going to accept anything less.’
“In the hockey world, the pulse of Toronto is very visible. And there have been a lot of things said, a lot of things have happened. The lack of success … you know you’re coming into a situation where you’re going to have to resurrect some confidence in the players,” he said. “These players have to understand that it’s not going to be accepted, that the way they did it before was somebody else’s idea. This coaching staff is implementing something different.”
The team has been better defensively under Carlyle, a step that has to come first. The Maple Leafs were a freewheeling, jump-the-zone club under Ron Wilson, and they simply don’t have the offensive firepower to play that way.
We’ve seen Carlyle’s teams play defence, and currently, his standard and the Maple Leafs defensive abilities are a long ways apart.
“I want everybody to understand this is how I like things done,” he said. “Hopefully we have people who want to buy into that. If they don’t, they’re going to be on an island.”
“We’re not giving up the golden opportunities that we did,” Leafs general manager Brian Burke said before the game. “That’s not a knock at Ronnie, but our D-zone coverage seems to be a little more solid. Maybe that’s why the goaltending has been better too.”
The Leafs broke down somewhat in Florida Tuesday. Two players were beaten to pucks on Florida’s first goal, and the fourth came on a 2-on-0 gifted by defenceman Carl Gunnarsson. The penalty kill wasn’t good, and the penalties Toronto took were “unacceptable” by Carlyle’s standards.
And he told his players exactly that after the game.
“He just spoke. Said what needed to be said,” related John-Michael Liles. “He was pretty blunt about it.”
The Maple Leafs lack confidence, defensive prowess, toughness and will. With Washington’s win, the playoffs crept 10 points away, with a dozen games remaining.
For now, Carlyle will avoid the newspapers, the stats pages. It’s the white board he’ll concentrate on with this Leafs club.
“The little things are the difference makers,” he stresses. “It’s stop-and-go hockey versus stop-and-circle. It’s hard work. It’s committing to not turning the puck over. We’re trying to create a template that we commit to. When things don’t go well, you go back to that template.
“It’s not easy to accomplish.”
Nor will it be fast.