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Mirtle: Relying on skill over size has Leafs back to winning ways

Toronto Maple Leafs right wing Phil Kessel (81) controls the puck in front of New York Rangers right wing Martin St. Louis (26) during the third period at Madison Square Garden.

Adam Hunger/USA Today Sports

It has been a long, long lasting issue during Randy Carlyle's tenure behind the Toronto Maple Leafs bench.

His player selection has often skewed to those with size over skill, fighting over finesse and checking over scoring, at least when you get down to the bottom half of the roster.

And, earlier this season, it looked like that might cost the Leafs a playoff spot.

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If you go back two months to Jan. 9, that was a real low point for this Toronto team. They lost 6-1 in Carolina that night – their third straight ugly defeat against a relatively weak opponent – and a contributing factor was who was in the lineup and who received the bulk of the ice time that night.

Jake Gardiner was a healthy scratch in favour of Mark Fraser.

Colton Orr was in the lineup for his customary five minutes.

And Jay McClement played nearly 19 minutes in what became the norm during the Leafs long midseason struggle to put up wins.

That was exactly 20 games ago. Since that point, the Leafs have gone 13-4-3.

And Carlyle has changed his ways to a large extent when it comes to his lineup.

Now, different people can put together different lists for which players the Leafs coach has relied on too heavily this season. Mine would start with all of the enforcers (save for Troy Bodie) and Jerred Smithson up front as well as Fraser and Paul Ranger on defence.

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You have to include McClement, too, as while he can fill a role, he's much better suited to being a fourth line centre who kills penalties than playing the 18-plus minutes he has often had under Carlyle.

All of those six or seven players contributed to Toronto's November and December struggles in one way or another, with the main one being that they simply limited the ice time of more skilled players.

It's easy to write off how important an NHL team's depth players are given their ice time. But in quite a few games, Carlyle has used those players mentioned above in 15 to 20 per cent of the available ice time, playing them over Morgan Rielly or Peter Holland or any number of other young players deserving of those minutes.

Here's a look at how that's changed over the last 20 games:

What this chart shows is that in the first 45 games this season, those big, tough players – Orr, McLaren, McClement, Fraser, Ranger, etc. – played an average of roughly 50 minutes a game, or 16 per cent of the Leafs available minutes.

In the 20 games since that point, they've had only 6 per cent of the minutes, with the vast majority of those coming when McClement kills penalties or Ranger plays spot duty as a seventh defenceman.

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It's a change that also includes the team's enforcers going from about eight minutes a game to a little more than three.

Now this obviously isn't the only thing that's helped turn around the Leafs season. Phil Kessel being one of the hottest players in the league, playing on one of the hottest lines, is the main catalyst. The Leafs have scored an impressive 3.5 goals a game over a sustained stretch.

But Toronto has also undoubtedly looked like a more skilled team overall in the last two months, creating more offence throughout the lineup and not spending nearly as much time hemmed in their own end.

More minutes for players that can contribute at both ends of the rink will do that.

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