ANAHEIM, Calif. – “Have they created their identity yet?” Randy Carlyle asked, rhetorically, of his former team.
Anyone who has watched the Toronto Maple Leafs stumble through the last two weeks could have given him the answer.
Mike Babcock certainly showed his cards by unveiling a dramatically different look for Wednesday’s game against Carlyle’s Anaheim Ducks. The Leafs coach shifted around three forward lines and two of three defence pairs, bringing Josh Leivo and Connor Carrick back into the lineup for Dominic Moore and Roman Polak.
“If it’s not going as good, after awhile you’ve got to find a way to fix it,” Babcock said after Tuesday’s practice at the Honda Center. “So we’ve tried a few things and it hasn’t gone as good. We need more guys going at the same time to have success.”
After starting the season in a manner that suggested they were on a rocket ship to the moon, the Leafs got bogged down. They’ve had trouble working their way through the neutral zone and sustaining the offensive zone pressure that allowed them to overwhelm opponents.
The first real sign of trouble arrived during an Oct. 18 win over Detroit, when they got completely caved in during the first period yet still emerged with a 4-1 lead. It was smoke and mirrors. They’ve dropped four of five games since, including an ugly outing in San Jose on Monday night.
That brought about changes to every line but the outstanding Zach Hyman-Auston Matthews-William Nylander trio and the effective Morgan Rielly-Ron Hainsey defence pair. Behind closed doors, it was accompanied by a renewed emphasis on making safer plays with the puck – a message that is becoming easier to sell to a run-and-gun bunch now that the losses are piling up.
“There’s a ton of skill in here so obviously you want to make plays,” said veteran centre Tyler Bozak. “It’s hard to dump it in all the time when plays are available. Obviously, [Matthews] is going to make plays, and that’s fine, but for a lot of us we’ve just got to get that puck in deep and work in the offensive zone. Teams are so good in the neutral zone nowadays with clogging it up and creating turnovers.
“If you keep turning it over there you’re not going to win a lot of games.”
The problems are rooted in the bottom two lines. Bozak, James van Riemsdyk and Mitch Marner have been unable to recreate their success from a year ago and keep getting juggled around. Leivo hasn’t found a permanent place in the lineup despite playing well seemingly every time he gets in there.
In a bid to address that, here’s how Babcock reconfigured his lines:
Hyman – Matthews – Nylander
Komarov – Kadri – Leivo
JVR – Marleau – Brown
Martin – Bozak – Marner
On paper, this looks much closer to an optimal forward group. Were they to replace Martin with Kasperi Kapanen, they might be all the way there.
Among the main reasons why the coach hasn’t gone that route so far is he’d prefer not to use Marleau at centre and this lineup leaves him down both Moore and Eric Fehr – players relied on for the penalty kill. Babcock hinted that the specialty teams balance has played a role in Leivo only dressing once so far.
“Should he be in every day? You know, you can debate that all you want,” said Babcock. “The reality is you need a certain amount of power play guys, a certain amount of penalty kill guys and enough speed in your lineup. He’s coming in [on Wednesday], he’s going to get a good opportunity. His opportunity is now to grab hold of it and make it as hard on me as possible and take someone’s job.
“When you get a chance to get in just take someone’s job.”
There’s seems to be an acknowledgement in this shakeup that the Leafs need to do a better job controlling the puck. They’ve been chasing the game lately and have seen their Corsi rating dip to ninth in the league at 51.34 per cent of even-strength shot attempts.
Carrick had success playing with Jake Gardiner last season and should help the revamped blue-line do a better job in transition. Here’s how that group now looks:
Rielly – Hainsey
Gardiner – Carrick
Borgman – Zaitsev
“We just thought that gives us three solid pairs,” said Babcock. “We think Borgman’s really starting to come and settle in, and so we don’t have to be as concerned about matchups. We can roll them out the door more. And maybe give us more balance and more puck movement.”
All told, these amount to a wide-ranging set of changes for a team currently running at full health. After watching where things were trending, and then seeing the Sharks completely dominate them, the coaching staff didn’t have much choice.
The Leafs have come a long way as an organization in the three years since Carlyle was fired – remember Bozak was his top-line centre – but they still have plenty of ground to cover.
“I see a young talented team trying to find its way,” said Carlyle. “They’ve got talent. Everyone looks at their lineup and what they need – what they need here, what they need there – they’re a young group that’s growing together.”
On Wednesday, he’ll get a first-hand look at the next stage of their evolution.