The here and now is no longer the main concern of the Toronto Maple Leafs, even if their new coach insists otherwise.
“I think the accusation existed in sports for a long time but that’s not in our vocabulary,” Randy Carlyle said Friday after he ran the Maple Leafs through another of his two-hour practices on two different rinks in preparation for Saturday’s game against the Philadelphia Flyers.
The “accusation” came up in a question about tanking the rest of the NHL season. After all, the chances of the Leafs making the playoffs are about as much as those of cyclists obeying the rules of the road.
So why kill yourself trying to go from 12th in the Eastern Conference to 10th when it would be more productive in the long run to finish low enough to get one of the top five picks in June’s entry draft? Before Friday’s games, for example, the Leafs had the sixth pick locked up and were a mere two points away from the top five.
Well, aside from the fact this has never been the Leafs’ way under general manager Brian Burke (remember the late-season acquisition of goaltender Martin Gerber), there might be all those potentially awkward questions from NHL commissioner Gary Bettman.
However, a visitor to Carlyle’s salt mine can’t help but notice a feeling of training camp. The long, intense practices are stopped only for whiteboard sessions as Carlyle and his drill sergeant, Dave Farrish, explain their systems. On Friday, for example, when the ice on the Leafs’ regular rink became chewed up, Carlyle marched his troops across the hall to a fresh ice surface to better continue working on the power play.
At one point Carlyle said the Flyers game “is the most important game of their lives” for his young team. But a little later someone asked him about what sort of things he’s told the players.
“I’ve stated to them it’s their chance to make a good first impression,” Carlyle said.
This is not to say the Leafs are giving up, but simply acknowledging a reality that even Burke spoke about when Ron Wilson was fired and the job was given to Carlyle. With the playoffs a faint possibility, this gives the Leafs the opportunity to learn the new coach’s systems a lot earlier than training camp in September.
In the meantime, it’s more important to see how Burke will fill the holes in his lineup. The two biggest ones are at centre and in goal, two positions where the free-agent market just happens to be as thin as a Kardashian’s intellect.
The signing of Mikhail Grabovski this week did not mean Burke solved his problem of having no big, No. 1 centre. It just meant he avoided the even bigger problem of having to find two good centres.
Fans and media may disagree on the priority, but Burke thinks finding that big centre is the big job. And it won’t be easy, since none will be available as free agents and lots of assets will have to be surrendered in a trade to get one. Ditto for a No. 1 goaltender.
In the meantime, the Leafs will get two players back from injury for the Flyers game, although only one, forward Colby Armstrong, is likely to play. Defenceman Cody Franson was fortunate to escape a serious eye injury when teammate Tim Connolly’s stick hit him during Wednesday’s loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins, but it looks as if he will sit on Saturday in favour of Luke Schenn, who was a healthy scratch on Wednesday.
Schenn’s fourth NHL season is not going well and Carlyle said he had a chat with the 22-year-old Friday morning. Carlyle said when he coached the Anaheim Ducks, he remembers Schenn continually challenging forward Corey Perry, something he has not seen Schenn do since taking the Leafs’ job.
“[The talk]was based on his getting back to being a physical, hard-to-play-against defenceman,” Carlyle said. “He has to be more challenging to opposing players physically.”