By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (Nov. 26) – Yes, I’ll be the first to acknowledge the miserable timing of my blog from yesterday. Led-balloon items occasionally appear in this space and others. I am not, however, the least-bit concerned about James Reimer, who will return to your good graces with the next opportunity.
As for Reimer’s team… well, I’m not so sure.
Since roaring from the gate with a 10-4-0 record in October, the Maple Leafs have been a sub-.500 club. While careening to 4-5-1 mark since winning at Calgary, Oct. 30, Leafs have turned in three performances arguably more ghoulish than anything offered up during the abbreviated, 48-game schedule a year ago. It began with a 4-0 capitulation in Vancouver, during which Leafs were out-shot, 11-0, in the first 6½ minutes and stopped competing, to any level, in the third period. Then came a 4-2 loss at home to Nashville last Thursday; Maple Leafs starting quickly before folding the tent. The coup de grace was Monday night’s 6-0 disaster against Columbus at Air Canada Centre – a display that ranked every bit as appalling as Randy Carlyle’s worst hour behind the Toronto bench: the 8-0 beat-down in Boston on Mar. 19, 2012.
In their past ten games, Leafs have played generally well only once – while breezing past New York Islanders, 5-2, at the ACC a week ago tonight. Even then, Leafs were out-shot, 31-21. So, what gives here?
LEAFS WERE DREADFUL AGAINST COLUMBUS ON MONDAY NIGHT – EQUALING THEIR WORST PERFORMANCE OF THE RANDY CARLYLE ERA. GRAIG ABEL GETTY IMAGES/NHL.COM
We all understand the ebb and flow of an 82-game schedule and how literally impossible it is for even the best NHL teams to avoid a downturn. Leafs have been amid the best teams since the beginning of the season but have rarely performed at a grade that any person would consider elite. The discipline and relentless demeanor of last year’s club has faded on most nights; been completely absent on others. If not for wondrous goaltending, it is grim for Leaf fans to consider where the club would be right now. Progress has clearly stalled – for the moment.
Why are the Leafs not performing to the level of last year’s club? Why have such key players as Cody Franson, Jake Gardiner and Nazem Kadri regressed from a year ago, when all three appeared to be ascending toward stardom? Though blessed with a cadre of talented forwards as deep as any in the league (Phil Kessel, Joffrey Lupul, Kadri, James van Riemsdyk, Tyler Bozak, David Clarkson), why can’t Leafs summon the energy and will to out-shoot opponents more than once every eight games? Injuries have been a factor, but they are also unavoidable. Somewhere, a disconnect has enveloped the hockey club and I think it’s fair to at least wonder if it starts behind the bench.
There is no purpose in debating Carlyle’s aptitude as a coach in the NHL. He understands the game as thoroughly as any of his peers and he wears a Stanley Cup ring from Anaheim in 2007. Credibility is not an issue. By all accounts, however, Carlyle is comprised of one gear, which isn’t unusual for veteran coaches but can become problematic if players are tuning out the message. All coaches have a shelf-life – some clearly longer than others. All are dependent on personnel provided by management – particularly concerning goal and depth at center. Leafs have almost no issues between the pipes and are stocked fairly well up the middle – when healthy – with Kadri, Bozak, David Bolland, Jay McClement, Trevor Smith and Peter Holland. On the blue-line, the club made terrific strides late last season with Franson and Gardiner, in particular, showing steady progress. Dion Phaneuf has played well, for the most part, in his final season under contract to the Blue and White.
This would appear to be a very workable group.
You can dismiss the Nashville and Columbus games as just a couple of bad outings in the midst of a long schedule. But, that’s far too simplistic. This is a fairly deep and talented club that has to be rescued, almost every night, by super-human goaltending. Unlike last season, it hardly ever dominates in the attacking zone and mistakes have only increased behind center-ice. Does not at least some of this fall on Carlyle and his staff? Haven’t Brian Burke and Dave Nonis provided Carlyle with sufficient personnel to be competing at a higher level?
Time will tell if Leafs are merely in a funk. Otherwise, someone will have to answer for a club that clearly seems to be trending backward.
FACEBOOK: HOWARD BERGER [TORONTO]