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Despite hot start, Leafs’ coach Carlyle sees room for improvement

The Toronto Maple Leafs and head coach Randy Carlyle are off to a 6-1 start this season. Toronto plays the Carolina Hurricanes on Thursday. (file photo)

FRED THORNHILL/REUTERS

Randy Carlyle must feel like the teacher in charge of a group of gifted, but rambunctious, schoolboys.

The Toronto Maple Leafs head coach knows, and to some extent the players know, there is still much learning and improvement to be done.

"You're pleading for people's attention," Carlyle said, adding sometimes the realization of the need for change "has to come from them. The look in the mirror. Sometimes, you don't like what you see.

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"That's one of those things you try to plead to everybody's individual preparations, their focus, their work ethic. Do a little bit of self-evaluation."

But so far the kids are acing their exams so, hey, teach, take a chill pill. We're 6-1, the best start to an NHL season for a Maple Leafs team in 20 years.

"There's a lot of things we can do better offensively and defensively and we're going to continue to work on those things to be better," forward Joffrey Lupul said Wednesday. "But it's not like we can be too upset with 6-1. It goes both ways. You don't want to come in and say we're playing perfect hockey because we know we're not, but 6-1 is 6-1."

Well, okay, Carlyle says. But if we continue to get outshot every night (37-14 by the Minnesota Wild in last Tuesday's 4-1 win), that great start will soon turn into a nightmare beginning with Thursday's game against the Carolina Hurricanes. Only the play of goaltenders Jonathan Bernier and James Reimer has separated 6-1 from 1-6.

"There are some things that get in the way, but 6-1 is only a stat," Carlyle said. "We know the body of work has to improve, yet we're very happy to take 6-1.

" It is a results-oriented business. We have to continue to strive for a higher level of execution or our success is not going to be something that's going to happen on a night-to-night basis."

The big problem is puck possession. The Leafs simply don't have it enough. They have been outshot in five of their seven games, with a 199-242 disadvantage overall.

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Goaltending and special teams are the keys to the Leafs success. While Reimer and Bernier took turns being brilliant, Toronto capitalized on some poor play by opposing goalies. Before Wednesday's games, the Leafs power play was third in the NHL with nine goals in 27 chances and their penalty kill was also third, allowing just three goals in 27 times short-handed.

Outside of that, the Leafs are coughing up the puck too much at both ends of the ice. Bernier and Reimer will not be able to bail them out forever.

Last Saturday against the Edmonton Oilers, for example, Bernier had his first ordinary outing of the season. The Leafs only managed to pull out a 6-5 overtime win because Edmonton goaltender Devan Dubnyk had a bad night and Bernier found his legs in the last half.

The Leafs can tell people to relax because they are doing all this while missing key players defenceman Mark Fraser and forwards Nikolai Kulemin, James van Riemsdyk and Frazer McLaren (injuries) and forward David Clarkson (suspension). So far, the mix of veterans and youngsters called up from the farm team has done well, but Carlyle knows that, too, can't last. (Van Riemsdyk's status for Thursday won't be known until the morning skate.)

The coach says David Broll, 21, is a good example of someone who can handle a spot on the top two lines in the short-term. But he cannot be expected to be a permanent solution, because he simply lacks the experience.

"We don't think David Broll is a top-six NHL player now, but we're forced to play him with Lupul and [Nazem] Kadri because he's smart enough, he makes decent decisions, he understands his role," Carlyle said.

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About the Author
Hockey columnist

A native of Wainfleet, Ont., David Shoalts joined The Globe in 1984 after working at the Calgary Herald, Calgary Sun and Toronto Sun. He graduated in 1978 from Conestoga College and also attended the University of Waterloo. More

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