As in the ever-changing world of the National Hockey League, and as the Edmonton Oilers experienced a week ago, don’t look now but the Toronto Maple Leafs are on a roll with just one regulation loss in their last six games (4-1-1). Crisis averted, at least for the time being.
So with any criticism heaped his way, head coach Randy Carlyle deserves a fair amount of praise for how he has handled his Maple Leafs team in righting the ship. It wasn’t so much that their record was terrible (it wasn’t), it was more that their early season performances had been.
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Talking to Sportsnet colleague Chris Johnston at the time, he mentioned that not only were the Leafs having some struggles, but that the same criticisms of Carlyle’s coaching last year seemed to be rearing its ugly head. There was a goaltending “controversy” of sorts after Jonathan Bernier hadn’t played well in the first two games of the season. Jake Gardiner appeared to be deep in Carlyle’s doghouse once again as he was a healthy scratch in two consecutive games. The third point was that the much vaunted development of a fourth line had seemingly been dismantled before it even started as Carlyle chose to dress only 11 forwards with seven defenceman in some of the early games.
Two weeks later, the Leafs have a much better record and all three of these issues have been dealt with. Whether it is a question of Carlyle changing and evolving to fit the program of the new regime or not (I don’t think that would be a significant factor), he has addressed all three of those criticisms in a positive manner.
Any lack of confidence in Bernier as the No. 1 goaltender was quickly dispelled as Carlyle let him take the ball and run with it in five consecutive starts in goal. Then when many of us least expected it, he started James Reimer last Saturday at home against Chicago and he came up with arguably as great an NHL performance as he has had in a 3-2 win over the Blackhawks.
Rather than being imbedded in Carlyle’s doghouse this season, Gardiner seemed to merely spend time in the less punitive dog park. Aside from those two games in the press box, Gardiner has played significant minutes on the blueline. While Gardiner had a terrible game against the Boston Bruins on Oct. 25, Carlyle didn’t use his play as an excuse to bench him, rather he kept sending him on the ice and Gardiner ended up with the most minutes played of any Leafs defenceman.
Dressing seven defenceman this early in the season was one thing that drove me crazy. What elite teams play with seven D in their lineup? None! Of course, the argument can be made that the Leafs aren’t yet an elite team. I did understand Carlyle wanting to reward rookie Stuart Percy for his great play at training camp and early this season. I also understand that he didn’t want to start making healthy scratches on a regular basis of newly signed defencemen Stephane Robidas and Roman Polak. It just always seems to be an unwieldy process to execute and it also delays the inevitable when the Leafs (like all NHL teams) will need a solid fourth line to play a serious eight or so minutes per game in the grind of an 82-game season.
Carlyle has either got the message or chosen to believe in the concept. Whether it is Peter Holland, Richard Panik, Brandon Kozun (now injured), Matt Frattin or Carter Ashton, Carlyle has put three of them together for a fourth line. He took it one step further this past weekend by putting more of a coaching imprint on the previously ignored unit. With Joffrey Lupul’s injury, Holland has moved up to the top three lines. Frattin seems to be the guy that Carlyle is least comfortable with so Ashton is now in the mix. The coaching imprint was recalling Sam Carrick from the Toronto Marlies on Saturday to centre that fourth unit.
The Leafs can enjoy much more of the Arizona sunshine with things going well on the ice. I give full marks to a solid two weeks from the coaching offices.