Three Periods: Maple Leafs problems run deeper than coaching and more changes are in store

Toronto Maple Leafs new interim head coach Peter Horachek, center, looks on as Maple Leafs' Phil Kessel, left, jumps on the ice against the Washington Capitals during the first period of an NHL hockey game, Wednesday, Jan. 7, 2015 in Toronto. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Nathan Denette)

Nicholas J. Cotsonika’s Three Periods column appears on Thursdays. This week’s topics include the Toronto Maple Leafs’ personnel problems; Brett Hull’s perspective on Vladimir Tarasenko’s shot; the advice Brett Hull received from his father; Hull on Ken Hitchcock’s evolution; Wayne Gretzky’s prized piece of memorabilia; Tim Murray on tanking and Ted Nolan; and a Russian referee on the horizon.
 
FIRST PERIOD: Maple Leafs’ slide confirms their problems run deeper than coaching
 
The day the Toronto Maple Leafs fired coach Randy Carlyle, they were 21-16-3. They had 45 points and the final wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference.
 
They have gone 2-12-1 since.
 
Today they are 23-28-4. They have 50 points and sit 13 points out of a playoff spot. They rank 25th in a 30-team league.
 
But that doesn’t mean the Leafs were wrong to fire Carlyle. They had good reason to fire him long before they did, and remember, they were in a 2-7-0 funk at the time. They were headed in the wrong direction already. Management felt it could see where things were going.
 
All this does is confirm that the Leafs’ problems run much deeper than coaching. If there was any illusion that Carlyle was the problem before, not just part of the problem, it’s gone now.
 
“As much as we’ve been assessing guys throughout the season, it’s another opportunity for us to see guys under a different coach and see how they respond and react,” said Leafs president Brendan Shanahan three days after the Carlyle firing.
 
He said it was up to the players how they would be defined.
 
“I also want to make very clear to them that we’re watching and that we’re on it,” he said. “Whether we’ve seen good things or we’ve seen some bad things, they’re not getting by us. They’re not escaping us. We’re not going to be a group that is afraid to act if we feel that we’re going to be able to make ourselves better.”
 
Interim coach Peter Horachek has made some positive changes. He has brought a lighter touch and better communication. He has helped the Leafs cut down on their shots against dramatically some nights.
 
But until the last two games, be it bad luck or bad hockey, the Leafs struggled to score. And when they did score four Tuesday night against the New York Rangers, they gave up five in a flat performance. Horachek said their “give-a-[bleep] meter” needed to be higher.
 
How can their give-a-bleep meter need to be higher when the team president already has fired a warning shot?
 
Horachek is trying everything. He has scratched David Clarkson and had an animated talk with him on the ice in front of the Toronto media. He has demoted Phil Kessel and watched him be the first one off the ice after practice as usual.
 
It doesn’t matter for Horachek’s sake. He isn’t going to be the coach next season. But it does matter if management is watching how the players respond and react.
 
Defenseman Cody Franson and forwards Mike Santorelli and Daniel Winnik are on expiring contracts and could go before the March 2 trade deadline. The question is who else might go now and in the summer, when teams are freer to make moves.
 
The Leafs might be stuck with Clarkson, in the second year of a seven-year, $36.75 million deal. He is virtually untradeable, and he can’t be bought out without immense pain thanks to the structure of the contract he received from general manager Dave Nonis.
 
But will the Leafs trade Kessel? Captain Dion Phaneuf? Winger Joffrey Lupul? Others?
 
Will Shanahan replace Nonis?
 
Shanahan didn’t make major changes when he took over in April. He didn’t give timelines or make promises, either. He set out to evaluate and move methodically, hoping to improve bit by bit, focused on the long term.
 
One day, he fired executives Claude Loiselle and Dave Poulin, and he hired assistant GM Kyle Dubas and created an analytics department. Then one day, he hired Mark Hunter as director of player personnel. Then one day, Nonis fired Carlyle with his blessing.
 
More is coming. This is still early in an ongoing process.
 
The Leafs might want to hire Mike Babcock, the best coach in the NHL, who is in the last year of his contract with the Detroit Red Wings. Or they might want Todd McLellan if he’s fired by the San Jose Sharks. Or someone else. The GM situation might be tied to the coaching hire.
 
But no matter who is behind the bench, this is a team – built by Nonis and his predecessor, Brian Burke – with a ton of holes, most notably at No. 1 center and No. 1 defenseman. It has some assets. Morgan Rielly, the 20-year-old defenseman, has been a revelation lately. But it is not a Stanley Cup contender. It is not close to being a Stanley Cup contender. It hasn’t even made the playoffs but once since 2005-06.
 
A lot of these players have defined themselves. The Leafs need to clear out veterans and add younger talent with an eye on becoming a Stanley Cup contender in the future. If they aren’t afraid to act, we should see it.
 

Vladimir Tarasenko has one of the league's best, and most deceptive, shots. (USA Today Photo)
Vladimir Tarasenko has one of the league's best, and most deceptive, shots. (USA Today Photo)

SECOND PERIOD: Hull calls Tarasenko’s shot ‘scary,’ but different than his


 
Brett Hull had a hell of a shot. He would get open and fire one-timers, sometimes putting so much into them he dropped to one knee. He scored 86 goals in a season, more than anyone other than Wayne Gretzky, and 741 in his career, more than anyone but Gretzky and Gordie Howe.
 
Now he’s in the Hockey Hall of Fame and an executive vice president of the St. Louis Blues, marveling at Vladimir Tarasenko, the 23-year-old whose 28 goals are tied for fourth in the NHL.
 
“His shot is scary,” Hull said. “You sit up in the press box, and you see it, and you go, ‘God, what a shot.’ But I had a chance to do a commercial with him the other day, and we were shooting, and it is so impressive and so hard and so accurate, and the release is so quick. He’s going to be scoring goals for a long time.”
 
Hull and Tarasenko filmed a spot for McBride & Son Homes with Kelly Chase, the Blues’ radio color analyst. Hull, a righty, stood in the left circle. Tarasenko, a lefty, stood in the right circle. On their forehands, they took passes from Chase and fired one-timers at an open net … Wide.
 
Tarasenko threw up his hands. Hull muttered something and shook his head. They threw down their sticks.
 
“Hold on a second,” Chase said.
 
Chase pulled out a bicycle pump. In a spoof of the New England Patriots’ Deflategate scandal, he pretended to inflate the pucks. Suddenly, Hull roofed one. Tarasenko picked a corner. Chase, who never scored more than four goals in a season and finished with 17 in 458 NHL games, delivered the punchline.
 
“I could have scored 86 with air in the pucks,” Chase said.
 
Ha. The commercial made Hull and Tarasenko look like mirror images, and they often are compared to one another now. But in real life, if you look closely, their styles are different.
 
“I don’t know if you notice,” Hull said. “He never really takes a one-timer. The game is so much different now. Everyone backs in, and those lanes aren’t really there anymore. So he’s created his own space.”
 
Tarasenko excels in small spaces. He can keep his hands close to his body and control the puck without stickhandling much before shooting. He doesn’t necessarily move his hands outward, signaling to the goalie the puck might be coming, or settle the puck, taking precious split-seconds. The puck can travel three or four feet before the goalie realizes it’s on its way.
 
“He just takes one quick move to the left, and he’ll fire a quick wrist shot through someone’s legs and the goalie will just go like this,” Hull said, looking back. “When guys score on wrist shots on goalies in the NHL now from 30, 40 feet, you know that thing is humming, because these goalies are good nowadays.”
 
But Tarasenko scores in many different ways. He knows angles and nuances – when he has a defender vulnerable. He’s a deft passer, too.
 
“I wasn’t as agile as him,” Hull said. “I kind of got to spots and scored. He can score from out, and you know, he plays the game right. He’s give and go. He’s not a puck hog. He doesn’t just shoot from anywhere. I’ve actually told him he’s overpassing.”
 

Brett Hull, left, learned a valuable lesson from his father Bobby. (AP Photo)
Brett Hull, left, learned a valuable lesson from his father Bobby. (AP Photo)

THIRD PERIOD: Notes from around the NHL


 
-- Hull went to spots and scored after receiving advice from his father, Hall of Famer Bobby Hull, who had a hell of a shot himself. “He said, ‘Son, the further you are from the play, the closer you are to it,’ ” Hull said. “And it took me a long time to figure out what that meant. Obviously he meant that, ‘Don’t be going into the corners in the pile, because somebody’s going to be coming out of that pile with the puck and it’s coming to you if you’re open.’ So the further you are from the play, the closer you are to it. And after I figured it out, it made great sense, and I think it really helped me develop my ability to find the open places.”
 
-- Hull won the Stanley Cup with the Dallas Stars in 1999. He clashed with Ken Hitchcock over his defensive system. That regular season, the Stars ranked eighth in goals per game (2.88) and first in goals-against (2.05). Now Hitchcock coaches the Blues and preaches the 200-foot game. They rank third in goals per game (3.04) and eighth in goals against (2.43). Different times. Different team. Different approach. “His ability to coach skilled guys has evolved,” Hull said. “Before it was just like, ‘I want the plumber that’s going to work their butt off.’ But this team is packed with skilled people that have a lot of talent. I’m sure he still drives them nuts, but he’s allowing them to play and score goals.”
 
-- Gretzky has one piece of memorabilia in his house: a replica of the Rocket Richard Trophy. He led the NHL in goals five times. He holds the records for goals in a season (92) and a career (894). But the league didn’t start awarding the trophy to the leading goal-scorer until 1998-99, Gretzky’s final season. Before Gretzky’s New York Rangers played the Montreal Canadiens one night, Maurice Richard presented him with the replica. “He said, ‘I know you’re not going to win a trophy, but you scored a lot of goals. You should have one of these trophies,’ ” Gretzky said. “Of course, I had a picture taken with Rocket, kept the trophy.”
 
-- General manager Tim Murray met with captain Brian Gionta for a long time Wednesday before the Buffalo Sabres made a huge trade with the Winnipeg Jets. Everyone knows Murray is tanking to increase the odds of getting the first or second pick in the draft lottery – Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel. Still, it had to be hard for the players to see management trade for Evander Kane, who can’t play the rest of the season because of a shoulder injury – even if he’s talented and could be on McDavid’s or Eichel’s wing next season. “Nobody’s happy,” Murray said. “Nobody’s trying to lose. Nobody buys into this tanking stuff. These guys want to win. They want to have individual success which translates to team success. Right now there’s no team success. But that’s not for a lack of them trying.” Note Murray said “these guys,” “they” and “them.” Also note that his sympathy goes only so far. “I’m not saying that’s easy in this situation at all,” he said. “But it’s not really the worst job in the world to come to a rink every day and have to play hockey for a living and make decent money.”
 
-- There’s no point in firing Ted Nolan now. But when Murray was asked to evaluate his coach, this was the first thing he said: “Um, we’re in 30th place.” He acknowledged the Sabres weren’t “the most talented team in the world” but said he wanted more consistency. Remember that Murray didn’t hire Nolan; he inherited him when took over last season and later removed the interim tag. The leading contender to be the Sabres’ coach next season is Luke Richardson, who is head coach of the Ottawa Senators’ American Hockey League affiliate. Murray came to Buffalo from Ottawa.
 
-- Evgeny Romasko has a shot to become the NHL’s first Russian referee. There are no plans to give him an NHL game yet. But he has been working in the American Hockey League, and the reports have been good.

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