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Toronto Maple Leafs Leafs head Coach Randy Carlyle works with the players during practice at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto on December 04, 2013. (Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)
Toronto Maple Leafs Leafs head Coach Randy Carlyle works with the players during practice at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto on December 04, 2013. (Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)

Mirtle: Fixing Leafs’ defence was Carlyle’s Olympic project Add to ...

Behind the scenes, the Toronto Maple Leafs have been busy the last 2 1/2 weeks.

And, at the centre of it all has been Randy Carlyle – a man who hardly sounds at ease over how his NHL team has played this season.

Rather than take off for a sunny destination (as many of his players did), the Leafs head coach and his assistants approached the Olympic break ready to work, using it as an opportunity for a second training camp, with daily meetings, intense practices and 1-on-1 sessions with individual players.

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Despite the fact the Leafs have the fifth-best record in the Eastern Conference, Carlyle still sees a group committing too many errors with the puck and spending too much time in its own zone.

“The issue for us has been when we’re loose with the puck through the neutral ice and in the offensive zone, we spend a lot more time in our zone,” he said Tuesday, the sixth of seven practice days the team has before getting back into game action Thursday, on the road against the New York Islanders.

“There are things that are really standing out for us that we do have to pay more attention to.”

The Leafs’ 2013-14 season has really been one with three distinct parts, with two 14-game hot streaks the primary reason they sit in solid playoff position.

They started the year going 10-4 last October, before slipping into a funk that eventually lasted more than 30 games, a stretch during which Toronto was outscored 105-71 and won just four times in regulation.

The last 14 games before the Sochi Winter Olympics, however, was a return to earlier form, with an 11-2-1 run.

The simplest explanation for why the Leafs have been so Jekyll and Hyde comes down to goal scoring. When top players such as Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk have been hitting the back of the net, they’ve won games; when they have gone cold, it’s been ugly.

Over those two successful 14-game stretches, Toronto has had a nearly 13-per-cent shooting percentage and averaged 3.5 goals per game, the kind of streaks usually only maintainable in short bursts.

But during the prolonged slump in the middle, that figure was just 8 per cent, well-below league average, and the Leafs generated only 2.2 goals per game.

The Leafs season, in a nutshell

GF

GA

SF

SA

SH%

SV%

October hot streak

3.4

2.3

27

36

12.7%

0.937

Midseason slump

2.2

3.3

28

37

8.0%

0.910

Latest hot streak

3.6

2.9

29

36

12.5%

0.918

Overall

2.8

3.0

28

36

10.1%

0.918

 

What has remained constant through it all, win or lose, is their penchant for spending a lot of time in their own zone and giving up a lot of shots, which is why it makes a lot of sense for Carlyle to direct his attention there rather than simply hoping his shooters can fill the net. 

One solution to date has been the New Year’s Day acquisition of defenceman Tim Gleason, who has helped free up some of the Leafs other defencemen for more offence, but even with him in the fold Toronto has continued to give up an average of 36 shots per game.

“We’ve relied on our goaltenders too heavily,” Carlyle said.

It’s a problem that is part system and part personnel, with the system side obviously where Carlyle’s Olympic break powwows can have a positive impact over the final 22 games.

Defensive zone coverage has been one focus during these practice days, as has playing a better transition or “attacking” game. Carlyle has had his defencemen practice at times while holding their sticks upside down in an effort to get them to rely more on positioning and less on poke checks and has flagged “turnovers” as the key scourge still to be eliminated for his team to improve.

Carlyle has also continued to call for better “compete level,” something he has constantly harped for going back to last fall.

“We’ve played the one [scoring chance] and out [of the zone] game and had far too many turnovers entering the zone,” he explained. “We’d like to correct that, and we’d like to create more offensive zone time. It’s been an ongoing process right from training camp to where we are now.”

“We all know as a team that if you play well defensively, you’re going to be on the right side of the puck,” netminder Jonathan Bernier added. “We know we can score goals. If we can tighten up our defence a little bit, then we feel like we’re going to be a tough team to beat.”

To date, however, that hasn’t happened, and the Leafs shots against issues have actually progressed in the wrong direction under Carlyle.

That’s what has led to all this time locked in offices of late, discussing the team’s issues for three or four hours before practice each day during the break. It’s been a tedious process at times, but a necessary one, Carlyle said, and come Thursday, that hard work will finally be put into action.

And whether or not he has finally found a fix for their defensive issues may well end up defining their season. 

“I’m tired of having meetings,” Carlyle quipped. “It’s like training camp all over again.” 

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The Leafs climbing shot count

Month by month since Randy Carlyle took over as coach at the tail end of the 2011-12 season, the Leafs have allowed more shots against per game, to the point that they're averaging 36.2 a game this season. No team has allowed that many over a full season in the last 20 years, going back to the 1993-94 Los Angeles Kings.

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