The Toronto Maple Leafs players spent their off-day Wednesday resting and/or rehabilitating various aches and pains. Their coaches spent the day studying video of the team’s stretch of five losses in its last six games in the hope of identifying the problem.
On Thursday morning, the Leafs coaches met with the players before the game-day skate at the Air Canada Centre to announce they were successful in their endeavour. In the famous words of the comic strip Pogo, Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle was able to tell his flock, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
What is killing the Leafs, Carlyle said, is individual mistakes, not their team play. Given a day to insulate themselves from a media-created “crisis” that saw Leafs general manager David Nonis give a series of interviews to say he is not about to fire Carlyle, the coaches decided the Leafs’ team game, their fore-checking and play in their own end certainly need improvement but it is not quite the disaster it’s been portrayed this week.
But the big problem is the individual breakdowns because most of them result in an opposition goal. Carlyle went over all of the problems and the solutions in the hopes of avoiding yet another loss Thursday night against the Phoenix Coyotes. Most of this mistakes were giveaways, such as the turnovers by Nazem Kadri, Jake Gardiner and Dion Phaneuf that resulted in all three goals the Florida Panthers scored in Tuesday’s 3-1 loss.
“[Wednesday] was an off-day for the players, and I stress players, not the coaching staff,” Carlyle said with a laugh. “We sat down for extended period of time and tried to do an evaluation of where we think the hockey club’s been heading and if there are positives we can bring to the table and eliminate some of the negatives.”
Most observers would retort the hockey club is heading off a cliff. But Carlyle insists that if you take a moment to take a deep breath and then calmly analyze the Leafs’ play over the last few weeks, “some of the things you thought were so bad weren’t as bad.”
The solution, Carlyle said, comes in making improvements to four parts of the Leafs’ game. Take the pressure off the team’s beleaguered penalty killers by taking few penalties, be more aggressive on the fore-check, ditto in the defensive zone and work on improving their faceoffs, as opponents are currently winning about 60 per cent of them.
“The biggest negative is we haven’t played well enough to win. We have to develop more consistency and make less mistakes than team we’re playing against,” Carlyle said. “One of things we stated was that discipline will have to improve. We can’t have any momentum if we take ourselves out of the hockey game with penalties.
“Four out of 10 times we get the puck in the faceoff circles, meaning six out of 10 times the opposition starts with the puck. And there are times we won the faceoff but didn’t execute.”
Carlyle also said he is not about to give up on his two youngest defencemen. Gardiner, 23, was benched for a while after the giveaway against Florida but will play again Thursday. Morgan Rielly, 19, was told he will stay with the Leafs rather than be loaned to the Canadian junior team for the world championships.
“Jake and I met this morning,” Carlyle said. “My message was the mistake that happened, not that he played poorly. He had five strong games but the mistake he made, the puck ends up in the back of our net. He is a talented young player, he can move the puck and can skate. He’s going to get the opportunity to do that again.”
As for Rielly, “he earned the opportunity to be in our lineup and he’s going to do that. He’s not going to sit on the bench, he’s going to play.”