Brian Burke may be gone, but the pursuit of truculence continues.
Even if that’s not the particular word that the Toronto Maple Leafs new general manager Dave Nonis and coach Randy Carlyle have for it.
Sunday was only the first of what will be a ridiculously fast paced six-day training camp for Toronto, but already the two men now charged with turning things around have made their message very clear to their troops.
While their roster may be nearly identical to the one that imploded last season en route to a 26th-place finish, they expect these Leafs to compete harder, win more battles and be more difficult to play against.
Or they’ll be gone.
“Players are going to play in positions that they may not be comfortable playing and doing some things that may not come naturally to them,” Nonis said. “If they don’t do that, then we’re going to have to make changes quicker. Our players understand that.”
If they didn’t before camp, they certainly would after Day 1 in Carlyle’s kitchen. The training camp pace on Sunday was furious right from the start, something players expect to carry over into the season. While the veteran coach seemed to be a kindler, gentler version of his gruff self when he came in late last year in the midst of the collapse, Carlyle is now charged with remaking a team that doesn’t particularly look like a Carlyle team into something more, a task that could be painful for the players involved.
And he realizes that, unlike last year’s 6-9-3 audition, the results will be on him.
“We’re going to try to push this group a little bit harder in some areas where they normally haven’t been pushed,” Carlyle said, a statement that wasn’t so much a veiled shot at former coach Ron Wilson as an undeniable truth. “You have to win your battles in the tight areas.”
Anyone who saw the 2011-12 Leafs knows what he means, too. For all their skill and ability to generate offence off the rush, this was a soft team that struggled with puck possession and defensively all season – issues that were masked by their offence before the last-half cave-in.
Toronto scored more goals than all but five other Eastern Conference teams but gave that (and more) back at the other end of the rink, allowing more goals against than all but the Tampa Bay Lightning.
While some of that was on those in goal – after all, discarded backup Jonas Gustavsson did start 36 games – Carlyle will leave that particular problem to Nonis and goalie coach Rick St. Croix. His concern will be the other 18 bodies in the lineup every night and ensuring they don’t end up minus-10 or worse like eight Leafs did a year ago.
That will likely mean they’re not always as high scoring as a group, but that’s a sacrifice Carlyle – unlike Wilson – has never been afraid to make. “It’s going to be just as important to prevent a goal as it is to score a goal,” Carlyle said. “And recognition of that is not going to be taken lightly.”
The question, however is if the bench boss has the personnel to make such a dramatic transformation happen, especially in such a short time frame and with few practices available. The list of Leafs players known for their defensive acumen isn’t long, and last season they relied extremely heavily on the likes of captain Dion Phaneuf to shut down opponents’ top lines.
The two areas where top defensive NHL teams draw strength from – centre and defence – are also long-standing areas of weakness for the franchise. With no top end reinforcements coming, that situation likely remains the same, which is why Carlyle will push for this group to be more of a fast fore-checking team than a grinding defensive one like his Anaheim Ducks clubs. More than anything, that means the less time they spend in the defensive zone the better.
“When you play a tight defensive system, you have the puck more,” Phaneuf said. “Because you’re all over the puck. You’re surrounding the puck. You’re holding the puck. That’s the biggest thing; the good defence is also having the puck.”