Leafs’ play forcing Carlyle to rethink strategy

Randy Carlyle has been patient and understanding over the opening two months of the Toronto Maple Leafs season. But a 6-0 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets is enough to make the coach rethink that strategy. (Abelimages/Getty)

TORONTO – No more Mr. Nice Guy?

Randy Carlyle has been a portrait of patience and understanding over the opening two months of the Toronto Maple Leafs season. But a 6-0 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets is enough to make the coach rethink that strategy, especially when it comes on home ice at the end of a stretch where he has been resting his players.

"The most disappointing part to me was we didn’t have energy (after) a day off yesterday," Carlyle said following Monday’s blowout loss. "It just seemed like we lacked the necessary pace that was required to compete in the game. That’s mind-boggling."

It was not a good effort by any measure. The Leafs surrendered goals 20 seconds apart in the first period, found themselves down 4-0 after 40 minutes and barely made Sergei Bobrovsky break a sweat while registering his first shutout of the season.

For Toronto, it was the worst defeat at Air Canada Centre since a 7-1 drubbing by Philadelphia back on March 29, 2012 – just a few weeks into Carlyle’s tenure here.

Even though the veteran coach arrived from Anaheim with the reputation of being a taskmaster, it has been seldom seen so far this year. There have been plenty of optional skates and days off, not to mention a refusal by Carlyle to critique victories that were low on style points. And when the team was beaten soundly by Nashville last Thursday, the coach even questioned whether he had been working the players too hard and decided to keep them off the ice the following morning.

Despite all of that, you get the feeling that the atmosphere is about to change – and not just because of the ugly loss to the Blue Jackets.

There have been indications recently that things have started to head in the wrong direction. The once-potent Leafs offence has scored just 16 goals in the last 10 games and the team’s penalty kill dipped to 18th overall in the NHL after giving up two more to Columbus. Were it not for phenomenal goaltending, Toronto would be doing much worse than the 14-9-1 record it now sports.

Of course, it didn’t even get that from James Reimer on Monday night.

His run as the NHL leader in save percentage ended up lasting just one day before the Blue Jackets – who were without three of their four highest-paid forwards – beat him six times on 21 shots. The goals were far from Reimer’s fault alone, but he was clearly frustrated with the performance afterwards.

"I don’t really have much to say – I don’t really have much to offer," he said. "It wasn’t my night tonight."

The most alarming part of the evening for Toronto was how badly outworked it was by Columbus. That was rarely seen during last year’s lockout-shortened campaign, when Carlyle successfully created a blue-collar culture which hasn’t carried over to this group.

At least not yet.

Part of that could be down to the injuries and suspensions the Leafs have endured over the opening months of the season, but even that can no longer be used an explanation or excuse. Tyler Bozak’s return to the lineup on Monday gave the Leafs their healthiest roster since opening night – although that may have quickly been offset by a groin injury to Joffrey Lupul, the severity of which Carlyle didn’t know following Monday’s game.

With the Leafs heading into a tough stretch of schedule, starting with a visit to Pittsburgh on Wednesday and back-to-backs in Buffalo and Montreal on Friday and Saturday, the players were expecting to get skated hard before heading off on the road.

"We’ve got to get back to work and (get) our game back to the level we want to get it to," Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf said. "We were outshot tonight. We were outchanced. The bottom line is we got outworked."

In short, they were embarrassed.

Even though Carlyle was his usual measured self when he spoke to reporters after the game, you just got the sense that change was in the air. It’s still relatively early in a long season and every team is bound to suffer a few bad losses along the way, but this seemed to be more of a warning sign than a one-off flop.

And if there’s one thing we know about Carlyle, it’s that he isn’t likely to sit back idly and let it continue. The expectations for everyone are going to go up.

"We just couldn’t find the pace of the game at all," he said after Monday’s 6-0 loss. "It was like we were playing in our boots and they were playing in skates. … It was one of those ones where it was very frustrating obviously."

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