Panicked, desperate, frustrated and second-guessing. These are some of the G words you can use to describe the Toronto Maple Leafs and their fans today.
With another embarrassing loss Thursday night – this time 6-1 in Carolina – the Leafs have dropped three in a row by a combined 18-5 score. All three opponents were behind them in the standings and now Toronto, which won 10 of its first 16 games, has dropped out of the wild card for the first time. The tumble that’s been gradually happening for the past month-and-a-half or so has become an outright free fall in the past week.
Naturally, this will kick start calls for coach Randy Carlyle to be fired for a new, fresher voice. The Globe and Mail’s James Mirtle was incredulous in his assessment on what is broken within this team. The latest baffling coaching decision Thursday was to make Jake Gardiner a healthy scratch in favor of defensive blueliner Tim Gleason. From Mirtle:
Smaller, offence-first defencemen like Gardiner and John-Michael Liles have been benched in favour of underperforming big men like Mark Fraser and Paul Ranger, despite the fact the blueline’s play with the puck has been a huge contributor to their possession woes.
Enforcers are dressed every night, but their line almost never sees the ice, with Colton Orr’s 33 seconds of ice time in Thursday’s first period evidence of a trend that only puts more pressure on the other units.
And useful player after useful player has been ostracized, pushed out or limited under Carlyle’s watch, with former Leafs like Mikhail Grabovski and Clarke MacArthur speaking publicly against the coach’s methods and current players like Gardiner and Nazem Kadri now being spun through the trade rumour mill due to their incompatibility with the system.
As important as it is for a team to, at some point, move forward with a coach for more than two or three years to gain stability and consistency, those two factors should be the least of Toronto’s worries today. What the Leafs need to be concerned about is if their roster is skilled enough to make the playoffs over 82 games and if they are properly handling the skill they do have. Heck, the Leafs need to be concerned about their team-building philosophy and if it is sound practice in a high-tempo, high-intensity NHL.
The Maple Leafs have never quite been able to figure out the salary-capped NHL, or at least have never been ahead of the curve when it comes to roster-building trends. They’ve, at times, shunned the importance of the draft, stuck to their guns on knuckles hockey over smart hockey, stuck their noses up at the complementary knowledge analytics present and used a pile of money to sign a free agent who had one very strong, very anomalous season and needed him to regularly be that player.
Carlyle, the gruff, old-school taskmaster whose shelf life may already be running thin, could be added to that list. And if he’s not the right guy to bring this team back to sustained respectability, then Toronto has wasted time and assets acquiring certain players to fit the coach’s style, including their most recent trade last week.
If the Leafs really are dedicated to putting a successful product on the ice and not just kicking back on the cash cow, their philosophy on how to build a winning roster needs to evolve and stay on course. They need to be influencing the league by driving the boat, rather than skipping along the wake of their opponents’ smart successes – and they need the personnel capable of figuring out that strategy and pulling it off.
Does this season turn around if Carlyle is shown the door to make way for a new voice that embraces the youth and runs with all their potential and all their mistakes? That’s certainly not a guarantee. But at least with that option you’d regularly see the strong-skating players you should be thinking of moving forward with – like Gardiner – in key positions and be able to better judge if they are leading NHL pieces, or asset-accumulating trade bait.
Replacing Carlyle is certainly something worth considering at this juncture. Anything is worth considering for a team that is constantly playing catch up with the rest of the league in almost every roster-related facet. The current model is broken.
The time for yet another new direction in Toronto feels near.