It was a dark time for the Toronto Maple Leafs, one year ago this weekend.
After hanging in the postseason race into early February, largely due to a terrific start, the Leafs lost six games in a row and 10 of their last 11 leading up to March 2, 2012, a stretch during which they fell from 12th in the NHL and firmly in playoff position to 23rd and well on their way to a lottery pick.
All in the span of 25 days.
So, on that fateful day in Montreal, head coach Ron Wilson was fired, Randy Carlyle was hired and the team limped to the finish line by winning only six of its 18 games under the new bench boss.
It may not have been the most encouraging start for a coach, but one year into his tenure and 22 games into this season, Carlyle has the Leafs in sixth in the Eastern Conference and back in the hunt for the playoffs.
Last season, their crash started with 29 games to play. In this abbreviated one, there are only 26 left to fritter a solid 13-9-0 start away.
What follows are five things Carlyle and company need to do to avoid last season’s disaster:
Get good goaltending
By far, the biggest year-over-year turnaround for the Leafs has come in net. Ranked second last a year ago in team save percentage (.898), Toronto is tied with the Montreal Canadiens at the sixth-best (.920) on the back of strong seasons from both James Reimer and Ben Scrivens.
The Leafs have improved their save percentage more than all but two other teams this season (Chicago Blackhawks, Ottawa Senators), which has played a huge role in the team’s goals against dropping by more than 20 per cent.
If they can maintain that the rest of the way, it will be the biggest plus factor in the franchise finally making the playoffs for the first time in nine years.
Increase Kadri’s role
He has been the team’s leading scorer and most valuable player, sits tied for 16th in league scoring and tied for seventh in even-strength points.
And Nazem Kadri, 22, has done it all while averaging only 15 minutes a night.
Carlyle bristled at the suggestion his young centre should be playing more after he scored a hat trick last Thursday, but with Tyler Bozak struggling on the first line to generate much of anything despite marquee linemates, the Leafs could benefit from testing just how much Kadri can handle at this point in his career.
“If he plays only 15 minutes a night and scored three goals, would you keep him playing 15 minutes a night?” Carlyle said.
The answer is no: You’d reward your best player with a bigger role and more power-play time and allow more players in the lineup to benefit from his strong play.
Sort out the blueline
Captain Dion Phaneuf has been saddled with a couple inexperienced partners, John-Michael Liles and Mike Komisarek have been consigned to the press box, and the only pairing with any chemistry so far is the third unit of Cody Franson and Mark Fraser.
Carrying eight defencemen, meanwhile, likely can’t last all year, especially with two key forwards (Joffrey Lupul and Matt Frattin) nearing a return from injury. Toronto will likely be moving out a body or two soon, and an upgrade on the back end would be big if general manager Dave Nonis can pull that off.
Sit the fighters
As nice a story as the return of Colton Orr is, the Leafs are also not a team deep enough on talent to be able to dress three punchers in their top 12 forwards.
Playing Orr, Frazer McLaren and Mike Brown so often has been good for Toronto’s fight totals – the Leafs were first overall with 22 majors in 22 games – but leaves Carlyle with few options when he needs more than fisticuffs in the lineup.
Not having a fourth line he can rely on in tougher defensive situations is part of the reason, for example, that Mikhail Grabovski has been turned into a $5.5-million (U.S.) checking centre. Getting more useful bodies in the lineup than the punchers could ease that burden.
Call up Gardiner
This one is self-explanatory. Returned to the minors to recover from a concussion early on, Jake Gardiner has seven points in his last nine games and could bring an element of puck moving that the Leafs defence is lacking.