I was fortunate enough to be literally napping while the Leafs metaphorically napped through the first part of Thursday's game. I half watched the remainder of the game, relatively certain that I would come on here and find a whole lot of Randy Carlyle hate after the Leafs' third straight debacle. I wasn't disappointed.
Before I get started I have to say that I firmly believe that a management team ultimately needs to take responsibility for the product on the ice, so I don't hold Carlyle (or Nonis) blameless in any of this. My only goal is to illustrate that not everything is the coach's fault and it's likely little will ever change with this team without significant personnel changes.
#1 - Who Dresses
The start of the hate with Carlyle is usually centered around who dresses in a particular game. If Gardiner played we still would have lost, so I see this as less of an issue, but I also think that people are looking at this way too black and white.
If this were a movie, Mark Fraser would be the lovable tough guy that got a broken face in last year's playoffs, got pushed out of the lineup by the new kid, and then through a series of montages learned a life lesson and improved his game. When he got his shot to re-enter the lineup (likely in some playoff series) he would make a key play that would advance us to the next round after playing an overall great game. Sadly this is not a movie, but the first part of that is reality. When the team is struggling any coach would give him a chance to get back in the lineup because he has given up a lot for the team and the other guy's on the team probably appreciate him for it. So if he's getting back in who do you take out? It can't be Phaneuf or Gunnarson they are your "veteran core", so that leaves Franson, Rielly, Gardiner, Gleason, Ranger competing for 3 spots. They need to keep trying Gleason out (he probably gets 5 to 8 games to find a groove before he's in the press box) so out of Franson, Rielly, Ranger, and Gardiner, bench two. Franson leads defencemen in points so that's tough (although doable), leaving just the other three and no matter what people will be upset if Rielly or Gardiner get benched.
#2 - The Face Punching
This really ties in with the above, but I didn't want to get into Orr and McLaren up there. A lot of people have problems with Carlyle dressing enforcers on the fourth line over guys like Carter Ashton (or D'Amigo or whomever). The problem is that the fourth line gets so few minutes that a) it doesn't matter and b) it's not like we have awesome player to play there anyways. On a typical hockey team you have 2 scoring lines, a checking line, and an energy line. On mediocre teams (like the Leafs) each line can really only do their one job. You really don't want Phil Kessel shadowing Crosby, or trying to throw a hit. On better teams like Boston, the scorers can also check (see Bergeron) or the energy players can also play (see Paille). Toronto DOES NOT have this ability and changing the coach won't change this fact.
Carlyle elects to use face punchers as his energy line, either hoping to intimidate the opposition with bodychecks and/or fighting. They don't score and they aren't fighting as much, so I do think trying other guys in the role (as he's been doing) is a good move.
#3 - Jay McClement
This could be called ice time, but really it's gonna be called Jay McClement because he has somehow become the lightning rod for the issue. As I stated above you have four lines on a hockey team. Generally SC1 vs CHK, SC2 vs SC2, ENERGY vs ENERGY. That's how most coaches line match. Toronto, is a mediocre team with a bad defence corps (at least at winning battles).
So, if I were coach, I would try to get my strongest checkers out against the other team's scorers ALL. THE. TIME. With maybe three (four if you include Clarkson) above average defensive forwards (McClement, Kulemin, Raymond) you have a choice as coach to break them up or play them together. McC is useless offensively, so he can't be moved up to the top 2 lines. And if he's on a checking line he needs to be on with at least one other good defensive player for the hard assignment (Kule). So that leaves Raymond to move up (plus he's a good two way player so playing 2nd line doesn't hurt as bad as using Clarkson would).
This leaves the Leafs sort of capable of playing a standard SC1 vs CHK, SC2 vs SC2, etc game. If the lines are more or less correct, and you're a line matcher, then McClement is going to play a lot. If he played less it's likely those minutes would need to end up stacked onto the fourth line which would be constructed more defensively (like Ashton - Holland - D'Amigo). This could be mitigated if we had a good two way #1 C who could play against other #1 lines, or if Kessel (slash the entire team) wasn't pretty brutal at winning puck battles in his (their) own end.
#4 - The System
Finally, everyone says Carlyle runs a system that doesn't work for this group and is an idiot for doing so. Possibly the system is also bad. I don't want to comment on either too much. I just want to say that whatever system he is running I doubt it includes so much of what we see every single night, but especially last night:
- Getting beat to every puck
- Standing still or puck watching
- Not taking a hit to make a play. To elaborate on this one, I don't have the patience to do this, but how often in a game do you think you see a Leaf gain the opponent's zone and stop at the boards about the top of the circle and then turn the puck over trying to pass through two to three defenders?
- Having about 30 to 40% of your offensive passes be backhanders, 30 to 40% of those of the no look variety
- Probably a slightly lower ratio (but still way too high) on defense. I mean does Franson ever do anything but no look it behind the net to whoever his partner happens to be?
- Show your leadership and toughness by taking a four minute penalty at the end of a 5-1 game by trying to fight a guy 30% smaller than you
P.S. If Dave Bolland comes back healthy and playing like he was before the incident, it probably solves a lot of complaints about icetime in general. Clarkson will also play better with Bolland than any other centre (in my opinion).