To paraphrase Brian Burke, if new head coach Randy Carlyle is to lead the Toronto Maple Leafs to the playoffs, at least four 18-wheelers need to drive off a cliff.
The Leafs are in a five-team fight for eighth place in the Eastern Conference. Not only do they need four of those teams to hit a losing skid like they did through February, they need to fix two things about their game to have any hope of a turnaround.
Unfortunately, since Leafs general manager Burke elected not to find even temporary goaltending help at the NHL trade deadline last week, Carlyle pretty much has to go on a wing and a prayer with that one. All he can do now is hope that Jonas Gustavsson can build on the good game he played in Toronto’s win over the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday. And Leafs fans can tell him they’ve seen that movie all too often this season.
But what Carlyle can fix is the defensive coverage in front of the goaltenders. He went to work on it immediately on Sunday in a high-tempo practice that kept the Leafs skating hard for almost 90 minutes. Carlyle and his new assistant coach, Dave Farrish, alternated drills with whiteboard sessions that explained to the Leafs just how they will be expected to take the pressure off the goaltenders.
“We want to improve our defensive-zone coverage,” Carlyle said when asked which part of the Leafs’ game needs to improve first, although he said two other areas are also sorely in need of improvement. “We want to improve on our neutral zone – not turning the puck over as often as we had in the past. In the offensive zone, don’t make those Hail Mary plays. Play conservative, but yet [be]an attacking hockey club.”
The biggest problem for the Leafs is that, too often, one defenceman was left trying to cover the front of the net by himself because his partner drifted off on a risky attempt to make a hit or chase the puck. Or the goaltender was left alone because both defencemen were AWOL.
Until now, the emphasis for the Leafs was not on playing tight in front of the net. Defencemen got used to drifting to the boards as the opposing team approached the Toronto blueline, hoping to pick off the puck when it was fired in along the boards. If you could capture the puck, in the Leafs’ run-and-gun game, the quicker you could launch a counterattack.
But in that high-risk, high-reward game, the puck often wound up in front of the net with no one around but opposing forwards.
“The way we used to do it, we never paid a lot of attention to that,” Leafs defenceman Cody Franson said. “[Carlyle]he likes to pay a lot of attention to how you enter your own zone in a defensive manner. In a defensive zone he wants you to approach it defence-first.
“He doesn’t want you cheating to the wall assuming you’re going to have a rim [shoot-in]come around up that wall. He wants you to protect the middle of the ice and move from there.”
That will be the foundation of the Leafs’ long-shot attempt to grab the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. If the defensive coverage improves, so does the goaltenders’ confidence. A confident goaltender makes the penalty killing better and also makes the forwards confident they can linger a little longer in the offensive zone without worrying the slightest mistake will end up in their own net.
CHASING EIGHTH PLACE
The race for the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference now involves five teams – one of the Florida Panthers or Winnipeg Jets, who held eighth place before the NHL’s schedule of games Sunday, the Toronto Maple Leafs, Washington Capitals, Tampa Bay Lightning and Buffalo Sabres. Either the Panthers or Jets will get in the playoffs as the third seed by winning the Southeast Division, leaving the other to fight for eighth place.
Oddly enough, the two hottest teams in that group are the Lightning and the Sabres, both of which were considered to be sellers at the trade deadline. No one shipped out more players than the Lightning, who are 7-3-0 in their past 10 games and have a four-game winning streak. The Sabres, who got rid of veteran Paul Gaustad but brought in rising centre Cody Hodgson, are 6-2-2 in their past 10 games.
The rest of the pack ranges from so-so to awful in their past 10 games. The Jets are 5-3-2, the Capitals 4-6-0 and the Leafs 2-7-1.
While each of the Leafs’ last 17 games needs to be won, their season will come down to a five-game road stretch that starts Mar. 11. They will play the Capitals, Panthers and Lightning in the first three. A loss to any of those teams likely means curtains.
THE JOYS OF EASTERN TRAVEL
New Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle, whose only other NHL head coaching job was with the Anaheim Ducks of the Western Conference, had a ready answer when asked what he will enjoy most about coaching in Toronto.
“The big difference is I was in bed by 12:30 [Saturday night]” he said, referring to the 3-1 Leafs win over the Montreal Canadiens. “Usually after a game on the road and coming back to Anaheim it was closer to 3:30 or 4 o’clock in the morning, and that’s the big difference.
“We were up in the air after the game in Montreal, we were landing in Toronto by 11:30, quarter to 12, and I was back at the hotel by 12:30.”
The common refrain of all Western Conference folk, be they GMs, coaches or players, is the great advantage Eastern Conference teams have in avoiding all that energy-sapping travel.
THE GAME CHANGER
If there is one player the Leafs have to worry about over the rest of the season, it is Buffalo Sabres goaltender Ryan Miller. He is known as a Leafs killer but lately he is killing everybody, which could be enough to keep the Sabres ahead of the Leafs in the playoff race.
One of the major reasons the Sabres were a disappointment most of the season was Miller’s sub-par play. By late January his save percentage was .897, but then Miller stopped 27 of 28 shots Jan. 24 in a 2-1 shootout win over the New Jersey Devils and the renaissance was on.
In the next 16 games, the Sabres went 10-3-3 as Miller posted a .946 save percentage and the team got back into contention.
HOPE FOR THE PENALTY KILLERS?
Before Ron Wilson was fired as the Maple Leafs’ head coach, he was regularly castigated for his team’s abysmal penalty killing. As of Sunday, the Leafs were 29th among the NHL’s 30 teams with a success rate of 76.6 per cent.
With new head coach Randy Carlyle bringing his old colleague Dave Farrish along as an assistant coach, the assumption is he will take over the penalty-killing unit from assistant coach Greg Cronin. But Farrish, who will handle the defencemen, isn’t so sure.
“I’ve always worked with Randy with the defencemen and usually one special team,” Farrish said. “But we really haven’t defined the roles here yet. So I’m just going to learn as I go.”
Either way, Farrish will have a big role. It was Farrish and Carlyle who handled all the whiteboard sessions with the Leafs at practice on Sunday, his first day on the job.