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Carlyle facing key questions over Grabovski, Gardiner as Leafs hit skids

Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle (top C) talks to his team in the first period of their NHL game against the Boston Bruins in Massachusetts March 7, 2013.

BRIAN SNYDER/REUTERS

Randy Carlyle had a message on Wednesday.

There will be no rash decisions, even with the barbarians (read: fans and media) baying for change.

And as poorly as he acknowledges his NHL team has played in a couple recent outings, the Toronto Maple Leafs head coach is adamant he's not going to change "the template" he set out.

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"We try to take 24 hours and get ourselves calmed down," Carlyle said following a late practice, a mere 14 or so hours after an ugly 5-2 loss to the Winnipeg Jets. "I think I was upset more last night than any game this year."

Carlyle has had, until this recent three-game losing skid, a fairly charmed start to his first full season in Toronto.

After all, the Leafs didn't lose more than two games in a row and ran up an impressive 15-9-0 record that put them only two points from the Northeast Division lead.

A winless week later, however, and they have to suddenly worry about teams like Winnipeg coming up from behind them.

If Toronto doesn't snap its losing skid in two home games Thursday and Saturday against the Pittsburgh Penguins and Jets, respectively, there's a scenario where the Maple Leafs can be in ninth place in the Eastern Conference – outside of playoff position – within three days.

The losing of late, meanwhile, has shone more of a spotlight on some of Carlyle's curious lineup decisions.

In Winnipeg, that included benching centre Mikhail Grabovski and his linemates for most of the game's second half, in favour of a fourth line that includes enforcers Colton Orr and Frazer McLaren.

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With the Leafs trailing 3-1, Grabovski played only five of the game's final 30 minutes, as part of an ongoing clash between the coach and a player who is often regarded as one of the hardest working and most valuable on the team.

The Leafs' highest-paid forward hasn't been as productive as in the past this season, in large part due to the role he is playing. Carlyle has decided to deploy Grabovski as a checking centre, often starting his shifts in the defensive zone and against team's top lines (much like he did with Sammy Pahlsson in Anaheim).

Grabovski's wingers, meanwhile, have been Nikolai Kulemin and either Jay McClement or Leo Komarov for most of the season – a trio that has produced a combined 25 goals in its last 231 NHL games dating back to the start of last season.

Despite that, Grabovski and Kulemin have still combined for one fewer even-strength point (22) than the more-heralded duo of Phil Kessel and Tyler Bozak.

After averaging more than 18 minutes a game early on this season, however, Grabovski's minutes are down to closer to 15 a game the last month.

"You make the call," Carlyle said curtly when asked after Tuesday's loss if Grabovski's ice time was cut due to a lack of offence – something evident in the fact he has just six points in his last 16 games.

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The other area that has become a focal point for the Leafs coach is the blueline, where he has used an AHL veteran on every pairing and had their inexperience show recently against speedy teams such as the Jets.

With 22-year-old Jake Gardiner excelling in the minors (30 points in 40 games) after making the NHL's all-rookie team last season, questions have been raised for weeks over why he has yet to join the big club.

Those murmurs hit a fevered pitch after Tuesday's loss, when Gardiner's agent, Ben Hankinson, posted a tweet saying simply "Free Jake Gardiner."

"I don't really pay attention to what agents have to say," Carlyle said in response. "I don't live in the Twitter world. …

"Jake had an opportunity here. He played two games for our hockey club, and we felt he was nowhere near where he needed to be. We went forward as we've done with some other players. Jake needed seasoning in the AHL and when we feel it's time for Jake to come back, we're going to make that decision. And we're not going to be influenced by anybody."

As for the highs and lows of his early tenure in Toronto, Carlyle noted he and his team are doing their best to remain unfazed by those as well.

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"That's why when people were pumping our tires two weeks ago about what we were, our statement has always been we're a work in progress," he said. "There's no better example than when you have performances like we did [Tuesday]."

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