One of the more interesting exercises when a new boss takes over is figuring out which of the worker bees will thrive and which will fade.
While it would help the Toronto Maple Leafs’ slim chances of making the NHL playoffs immeasurably if all of their players thrived under new head coach Randy Carlyle, it is not the way of the world. Carlyle, though, said in general he makes his decisions on playing time based on players’ attitudes as much as their abilities.
“I think it’s important players present enthusiasm, effort and commitment to what we’re trying to accomplish as a coaching staff,” Carlyle said Monday after a strenuous practice of 1 hour 49 minutes. “You make your decisions based on that.”
Carlyle says he wants to emphasize the Leafs’ speed as a group. But it will be backed up by a defence-first mentality judging by both of his lengthy practice sessions in preparation for his first home game as the Leaf coach on Tuesday against the Boston Bruins.
This does not appear to be good news for centre Tim Connolly. He was bumped to right wing on a checking line with Dave Steckel and Nikolai Kulemin for Saturday’s 3-1 win over the Montreal Canadiens. By Monday he was one of five players wearing the maroon sweaters designating the fourth line, which put his playing status in doubt for Tuesday. Matthew Lombardi was also in maroon, which means he, too, may get a seat in the press box.
However, it is more important for the Leafs, at least in the short term, since Connolly is supposed to be a No. 1 centre, that three of their defencemen thrive under Carlyle. Both Luke Schenn and Mike Komisarek struggled under former coach Ron Wilson; Komisarek was scratched regularly from the lineup, and Schenn had his playing time cut. Dion Phaneuf maintained his lion’s share of ice time, although his play was not always up to that standard.
In Carlyle’s system, though, which stresses physical play and protecting the front of the net, Komisarek and Schenn should feel a little more at home. Outside of Phaneuf, they are the only Leaf defencemen who try to hit people regularly.
“I feel those players have to have that physical element to be effective,” Carlyle said when asked about Komisarek and Schenn.
Phaneuf should improve – and it is important for the Leafs that he does – because Carlyle’s system is more structured than the previous one. Players are expected to do certain things in certain situations rather than freelance, which is where Phaneuf gets into trouble. Going for the big hit or trying to stickhandle all the way down the ice will not be encouraged.
The goal is to protect the most vulnerable area on the team – goaltending. While Carlyle maintained his custom of not announcing the starter (he says he’s superstitious), it will likely be Jonas Gustavsson, who played well enough in the Montreal win.
Gustavsson may thrive under Carlyle as well, since the coach said he does not expect any goaltender “to be a saviour.” All the goalie has to do is “give us a chance to win” if the defensive system in front of him is working.
Among the forwards, another player whose stock is rising is Jay Rosehill. He was recalled from the Leafs’ American Hockey League farm team to add toughness to the lineup. “You have to have that kind of player who makes stars feel comfortable,” Carlyle said, although he would not guarantee Rosehill will play in every game.
Connolly, by the way, may be on notice, but he still has a chance to fight his way back up to the top line. Carlyle said he would guarantee Connolly “will be in the lineup” against the Bruins, although a decision about just where he’ll play was planned for later Monday afternoon.