Maple Leafs are a mess no one’s sure how to clean up (Trending Topics)
This is what happens when you chase mysticism down a rabbit hole.
The Leafs have, for so long, been on the hunt for whatever it is that made them quote-unquote successful in the lockout-shortened season, spiraling themselves deeper into the world of finger-pointing and second-guessing with every embarrassing loss. And there have been, at this point, a lot of embarrassing losses to choose from.
Randy Carlyle has been coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs for three “full” seasons plus 18 more games from before the aforementioned lockout. He's coached 168 games for the Leafs, including last night's home tilt with Tampa, the results of which matter not at all (full disclosure: This is being written in advance of that game, which they ended up winning, but regardless of whatever the result might have been, great victory or gutting defeat, the problems of this Leafs team remain its problems and will do so until something is done behind the bench and in the front office). None of the losses, though, were more humiliating for him and his charges and bosses and fans than Tuesday's titanous 9-2 loss against the Nashville Predators.
After that game, many players were asked if they were playing to get their coach fired, and while to a man they answered something along the lines of, “No, of course not and that's a ludicrous question,” but the answer was out there on the ice. Of course they're playing to get their coach fired, but not in the intentional way that the ravening Toronto mitten-stringers would have loved to hear confessed. Instead, they're playing to get their coach fired because their coach hasn't imparted to them a type of hockey that results in wins. Losing teams get coaches fired, and the Leafs are — and always will be — a losing team under Carlyle.
The Burke cartel-backing crew in the Toronto media, who believe these losses are on the players and not coaches or management, have advised that any decision to fire their beloved managers would be “emotional,” with the implication being that there would be something rash behind canning a coach who's won just 61 out of 168 games in regulation.
But the problem, apparently, is the players. That's what they say. Constantly. Even when they win, as they did in impressive fashion against one of the highest-scoring teams in hockey, there's always some problem stemming from the dressing room, not the coaches' room. That's why, after that big W, they're not talking about what went on, on the ice during the game, they're talking about what didn't happen after it: A stick salute. As though this is something anyone at all should care about. It's another idiotic distraction put in place for no other reason than to vilify the not-good-enough roster that Dave Nonis has put together, and that Carlyle couldn't coach to a winning campaign over 82 games if his life depended on it.
Any analyst who says the problems not with the coaches or management will bemoan things like a lack of toughness or leadership — intangible evidence to back unsupportable arguments — because if you pressed them on the Xs and Os of the thing, they'd have to admit that the Leafs are a disorganized mess regardless of who's in the lineup. Throw out the Stats and put away the Calculators (which by the way show that the Leafs' fenwick since the day Carlyle took over is second-last in the league ahead of only Buffalo, and with a PDO of 101.1 which implies that more than a few of their wins have come largely as a result of luck) and try argue that this is a Leafs team capable of making the playoffs 99 seasons out of 100. Bonus points if you can do it with a straight face.
Watch any Toronto game and you'll see the same thing over and over:
• You'll see defensemen who have no idea where they're supposed to be at any given moment, except maybe covering that guy who just blew past them and put the puck in the net because they were watching the uncovered puck carrier on the other side of the ice.
• You'll see forwards milling about below the faceoff dots in their own end without any clear purpose, and not providing any real help to the hemmed-in, beleaguered defensemen who are trying to direct traffic.
• You'll see that when they actually do dispossess the other team, that they have no idea how to actually get the puck moving in the right direction, and rushes die on the sticks of defensemen who, skills-wise, really ought to be better at this.
• You'll see forwards just standing there without the puck, waiting to receive passes that never come.
• You'll see any zone time they do eventually get fizzle out quickly, becomes there's never any support for the puck carrier. At best, it's a shot, maybe a rebound, and either a faceoff or the puck gets cleared.
• You'll see the team stampede like madmen back to the far blue line the second possession in the offensive zone goes sideways.
All of that screams “Losing Hockey” in the clearest possible terms, and it's interesting that the Leafs are talented enough — up front with some serious scoring talent and in net, especially — to win more often than they probably should. Which is why blaming the players has never for a second made sense under this regime.
Haven't we tried that? Didn't Carlyle famously loathe the hockey played by Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin? So didn't Nonis let them walk for nothing (and in Grabovski's case, actually spend money to get him off the roster)? And where's that gotten the team? The last two seasons they've been scrounging in the garbage bin looking for borderline top-six talent they can plug into the lineup holes those non-transactions left, and it hasn't exactly worked out poorly, but none of their “replacements” has put up numbers like either of the departed Lone Wolves have. Both are currently doing very well on Long Island, incidentally, despite tough-ish usage. Clarke MacArthur, too, has been very good in Ottawa after the Leafs let him walk for nothing.
Remember, when the Toronto media was laying wreaths on the grave of last year's disaster, the lack of leadership was the issue often cited for the team's collapse over the final 20 games, more so than anything else. That was also the problem cited when the team blew that famous 4-1 lead against Boston in Game 7 last year. To that end, the team has tried to get leadership-er and accountability-er over the last two summers, and where has that gotten them? They've got the worst contract in the league on the books thanks to the David Clarkson signing, they brought in Stephane Robidas on a contract both too rich and too long, and re-instated Leo Komarov as their beloved European grinder on a similarly unwise deal. Those three players combined cost the Leafs a cool $11.2 million against the cap, and will for the next three years. None plays more than 17 minutes a night
No one is writing columns in Toronto about how these three have been okay at best this season, in extremely limited roles; Clarkson is the only one with positive relative possession numbers, and he has six goals, but few full-time forwards get easier minutes under Carlyle. All they say is there's something wrong with The Players. And when they say The Players, they basically mean Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf (and James Reimer, whenever he happens to be unlucky enough to start), who are so put-upon as the only real stars of this team that unless they each put up three points a night they're seen as anchors dragging Carlyle down.
Let's address the Phaneuf thing first, because this is something that's been going on for a while now. Is Phaneuf worth his contract? On a statistical basis he is obviously not, but intangibly, you might be able to make the argument. He faces the music when the team gets its ass handed to it, because he's the captain and that's what he does. He also takes tougher minutes than any Leafs defenseman, and his usage has only gotten more difficult under Carlyle. It's tough to argue that he's a true No. 1 defenseman, because he hasn't posted positive possession numbers once under Carlyle
You have to wonder, though, if it's just a coincidence that Phaneuf went from positive relative possession numbers under Ron Wilson to “immediately in the toilet” under Carlyle even as his time on ice per game has declined. When he was playing 25 minutes a night for Wilson, it's not like he was being shielded from tough competition, right? So we have to look for what would have changed to make his numbers tank. “His coach” is a pretty big one. And again, this isn't to defend Phaneuf, but if he's really not that good of a defenseman, I don't see why you keep playing him 20-plus minutes, or give him that huge contract the Leafs floated him last year.
Meanwhile, Kessel has 23 points in 20 games, which is impressive when you consider that he plays with Tyler Bozak. In and of itself, this is a problem. It's an old argument, but here it is anyway: Bozak has repeatedly shown he's not a first-line center, but this neither prevented the Leafs from signing him to a lucrative, long-term deal, and continuing to use him as Kessel's pivot. And it's not for want of better options, because Nazem Kadri is right there being underused. Under Carlyle in seasons not including this one, Kessel has played almost four times as many minutes at 5-on-5 with Bozak than Kadri (about 1,457 to 365) and guess which one has the higher goals-for percentage with Kessel. It is, of course, Kadri (55.6 to 54.4). This year the gap is even more pronounced at 50 percent for Kadri to 42.1 percent for Bozak. This isn't an advanced stat, this is goals-for and goals-against. The Leafs score more, and have for two years, when Kessel and Kadri were on the ice at the same time. So of course they have a grand total of 436:51 TOI at 5-on-5 together.
As to the Reimer issue, well, he's been terrible this year. There's no hiding that. But that's after two years of his coach and GM throwing him under the bus despite a .913 save percentage over his last two seasons. I'm not one to believe in “confidence” being a huge part of what makes a goaltender good or not-good, but if you are, how do you not think Carlyle's treatment of Reimer during this time has had an impact?
At some point, it goes beyond players holding themselves or each other accountable for all these losses, doesn't it? If you can't fire the whole team, and don't want to trade your stars (the Leafs have, in fact, insisted on re-upping them), and something has to change, aren't you running out of options that aren't, “Send Randy Carlyle and Dave Nonis packing?” Nonis picked this team more or less by himself at this point. In just two-plus years of Nonis running the show, the number of holdovers from the Burke era is down to eight (Kessel, Lupul, Phaneuf, Bozak, Franson, Gardiner, Kadri, Reimer, and Frattin), not including guys drafted before Burke got canned.
This is very much Nonis's team at this point, and all he's done is shuffle out good players and bring in pale imitations at best in the hopeless pursuit of toughness and leadership, which definitively do not win you games when the talent isn't there.
And Carlyle is a guy given a not-terrible roster (not a good one either, mind you) and taken it down to the dregs of the league. It's honestly difficult to see how anyone without a vested interest defends him from these attacks any more. Again, none but the Sabres have turned in worse possession numbers since he took over, and the Leafs don't even have a high draft pick in the last few years to show for it. They made the playoffs once as a fluke and, in an even bigger fluke, had one of the biggest meltdowns in NHL history. Fitting really.
The causes so quickly blamed have been the same after every embarrassment, and every collapse. “The answers are in that room,” and so on. But asking for accountability also requires introspection, another thing of which Carlyle and Nonis seem incapable. That scapegoat isn't wrong, though. It just fails to consider that Carlyle's in the room too.
And he really shouldn't be for much longer.
Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.
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