There will be something familiar about the Toronto Maple Leafs when they finally hit the ice in about 12 days time.
Of the 22 players under contract, all but forwards James van Riemsdyk and Jay McClement were along for the bumpy ride of 2011-12, when Toronto sat in playoff position for the first half of the season, but ultimately finished 26th overall.
As general manager Brian Burke said forlornly last March, it was “akin to an 18-wheeler going right off a cliff.”
Barring any major personnel moves in the next week and a half (i.e. a Roberto Luongo trade), that big rig is back for another attempt at staying on the road to the playoffs.
Statistically speaking, the Leafs were the 10th-highest scoring team in the league but were undone by poor goaltending (29th in save percentage) and overall defensive play (29th in goals against).
That’s why it shouldn’t come as a surprise new head coach Randy Carlyle has made team defence a large part of his mandate – just as he did with the Anaheim Ducks during their successful run under his watch.
“In the end, if you watch football, or if you watch baseball, or if you watch soccer, defence gives you a chance,” Carlyle said. “And that’s what you’ve got to ask of your group. Defensive hockey and a defensive posture in certain situations gives you a chance.
“It doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to win, but it gives you a better chance playing that way then playing the run-and-gun.”
Carlyle was definitive about several aspects of his roster when he met with the media Monday. For one, van Riemsdyk will be playing on the wing, not down the middle, as had been previously suggested. And for another, he is content with the three inexperienced netminders he’ll have vying for NHL jobs.
“Our goaltending is NHL-quality goaltending,” Carlyle said of the trio of James Reimer, Ben Scrivens and Jussi Rynnas, who have 85 career NHL games between them to go with success in limited time in the minors.
“Everybody has asked us that question numerous times and our answer is the same. We have some people that can play at a high level in the NHL, and it’s not just the goaltenders’ responsibility, it’s our responsibility as a coaching staff to implement a system where we can be better defensively.”
While much of the focus will be on that battle in goal – and by extension the never-ending hype over a potential trade with the Vancouver Canucks for Luongo – the personnel directly in front of the goalkeepers come with some question marks, too.
On the blueline, Jake Gardiner is nursing a head injury, Cody Franson is unsigned and beyond what was an overworked top pairing of Dion Phaneuf and Carl Gunnarsson last season, there are question marks galore.
One long shot to contribute is last June’s fifth-overall draft pick, 18-year-old Moose Jaw Warriors defenceman Morgan Rielly, who is fresh off a stint with the Canadian world junior team.
On Monday, Carlyle wouldn’t rule out pushing him right into NHL duty. And given the Leafs’ lack of blueline depth, he could very well make an argument for staying in a shortened training camp next week.
“If he earns the opportunity or the right to be on our hockey club, then he makes our decision difficult,” the coach said.
Beyond that, without any additional outside help, the decisions may not be that difficult.
This is a roster that’s mostly set, is mostly the same as last spring, and that was largely on hand for the horror show a year ago.
“I thought we were really good for the majority of last season,” veteran defenceman John-Michael Liles said. “It’s unfortunate we finished the way we did. It happens.”
Without any outside help, the worry in Leafs Nation is that it could well happen again.
Leafs projected lineup:
Lupul - Bozak - Kessel
MacArthur - Grabovski - Van Riemsdyk
Kulemin - McClement - Frattin
Connolly - Steckel - Brown
extra: Lombardi, Komarov
Gunnarsson - Phaneuf
Gardiner - Franson
Liles - Komisarek
The first call-ups
Kadri, Holzer, Ranger, Hamilton, Rynnas