By now there would have been at least one smart-ass remark about not erecting statues to Nazem Kadri, delivered with that arrogant half-smile. Or perhaps Ben Scrivens would have been the subject of an aside from Ron Wilson: the man uncomfortable with praise even when someone else was delivering it for him.
Four games into the NHL season – when the schedule is 48 games, we can pretty much drop the “it’s just four games in” disclaimer, no? – and ahead of Thursday night’s blown 3-1 lead the most noticeable difference between the Dave Nonis-Randy Carlyle duo was the lack of drama. Seriously. Nobody’s boldly predicted that this player or that player is going to be acquired. Carlyle may have felt it necessary on Thursday to poke the local media for the portrayal of his gentle nudging of James van Riemsdyk ahead of Wednesday’s win over the Pittsburgh Penguins, but on the Wilsonian scale of manufactured anger and turning up the crisis thermostat, saying, “One thing in this market: when you say something, it’s painted 15 ways,” barely registers.
Of course, this can all change. Let’s see if Carlyle chalks up the 7-4 loss to the New Islanders and the disappearance of the Leafs legs during the first intermission as the product of back-to-back nights after a shortened training camp. Let’s see if it’s a one-time pass. “I don’t have an explanation,” Carlyle said evenly after Thursday’s implosion. “My message is we accept responsibility, and that we will be judged by how we play Saturday.”
Carlyle had his moments with the Anaheim Ducks, and a few more second periods such as Thursday’s, when the Leafs allowed two goals in 1:24, the second of which came with Carl Gunnarson coming up small in front of the net against Brad Boyes, will surely try his patience. Scrivens flailed and missed at the fourth and fifth Islanders goals. That’s something, and Phil Kessel’s lack of goal-scoring is destined to be a popular off-day topic.
Yet so far, those who predicted that Carlyle’s defensive philosophy would be a toxic mix with this group of players have been wrong. Instead, what has happened is Carlyle and his coaches have mostly got it right with their defence rotation, starting with the decision to pair Mark Kostka with Dion Phaneuf. Moving van Reimsdyk onto a line with Mikhail Grabvoski and Nikolai Kulemin kick-started all three players in the 5-2 win over the Penguins in a season where a win is a win is a win. Following their lead, the Leafs attacked the area in front of the Penguins net.
Kadri, meanwhile, has been a regular contributor and has been noticeable at crucial times. Mostly, he’s been coached and otherwise left alone, just like any other player. Matt Frattin was told in training camp by Carlyle that more was expected of him. Joffrey Lupul’s injury saw him called up, and he had three points on Thursday. And even those of us who aren’t fans of Colton Orr’s talents can at least see where Carlyle’s going when he says the players ice-time is a reward for the fact that Orr did what he was asked to do in the off-season. That’s right and proper.
As for the goaltending? Carlyle decided to not leave well enough alone and started James Reimer in Pittsburgh after Scrivens made it through his first two games without being a storyline. Reimer won; Carlyle flipped off the concept of ‘the hot hand’ once again and went back to Scrivens against the Islanders. The result was not what he needed, but those Roberto Luongo rumours seem to be on life-support. Perhaps Nonis is just being quiet. All Carlyle said was that he pulled Scrivens after the fifth goal because “Ben didn’t have it … but then I don’t think any of our players had it.”
So let’s see where this goes; the Leafs play the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden on Saturday, then have two days off before heading down the QEW to Buffalo. Carlyle must now deal with the first lousy performance of the season, including an empty-net goal allowed on a 6-on-4 power play and a 5-on-3 power-play late in the first period that could have left the Islanders done and dusted. Say, did we mention that Phil Kessel has failed to score a goal? Wonder how Ron Wilson would handle it.
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