By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (Nov. 29) – So, now I have a “vendetta” against Randy Carlyle. Yup, it’s right there on my Facebook page: a couple of “Friends” – Ted Barton and David Rubenstein – suggesting I’m out to get the Maple Leafs’ coach because I’ve queried whether his hockey club is paying attention.
The title of my blog from Tuesday read: “Are Leafs Listening to Carlyle?”
Okay, I’ll ask again: Are they?
If the Toronto players fully grasp all that Carlyle has pounded into their heads while winning four of their past 11 games, poor Randy should be working as a street vendor. Think about it for a moment: If a reporter had asked Carlyle on Wednesday night – after his team had blown a 4-1 lead and been out-shot 19-0 in the third period and overtime of a 6-5 loss at Pittsburgh – whether he felt the players were truly “listening” to his coaching advice, what would he have honestly replied?
“Oh, sure they’re listening. As a staff, we constantly tell them to throw the puck away in the defensive zone and not to apply pressure in the attacking zone. I mean, c’mon, why shoot at the opposition net?”
IS RANDY CARLYLE POINTING IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION THIS SEASON?
Folks, something is rotten in Denmark and any question posed about the Leafs – at this point – should be considered. It doesn’t have to be embraced or agreed with. But, considered? Absolutely. At no point in my Tuesday blog did I even imply the Maple Leafs should replace Carlyle as coach. If you’re not sure, have another look. The blog was written after Monday night’s Air Canada Centre humiliation against Columbus – a 6-0 fiasco that probably incited a question or two among the most dyed-in-the-wool Leaf supporters. If, as a fan of the Blue and White, you possess even a smidgen of objectivity, this was a game you had to see coming – so sloppy and indifferent were the Leafs through much of November. It followed a lousy home performance against Nashville last week.
So, yes, I have lots of questions. None of the answers, however, are beyond Carlyle’s grasp. He knows – given the Leafs’ good personnel – how his team should be playing. And, more importantly, what it should not be doing on a regular basis. I don’t think anyone would disagree that it’s up to Carlyle to figure out the persistent complications. Among them:
• Why the Leafs cannot limit clubs to a reasonable number of shots on goal. This is no longer a blip on the radar. Toronto is averaging 36 shots against per night and has yielded more than 45 on several occasions. At such a rate, Jonathan Bernier and James Reimer will be completely fried by mid-season or – even worse – flailing uncontrollably like Charelstown Chiefs’ goalie Denis Lemieux in the cult movie Slapshot.
• Why the Leafs no longer seem able – or willing – to forecheck aggressively and cycle the puck in the offensive zone. This was a hallmark of Carlyle’s playoff team last season and arguably the coaching staff’s prime failing in 2013-14. Such execution is not a matter of personnel. Leafs are loaded up front with speed and skill, both of which were in abundance last year. Phil Kessel, Joffrey Lupul (when healthy), Nazem Kadri, Tyler Bozak, James van Riemsdyk, Nikolai Kulemin and Jay McClement have all returned; joined (at various times) by David Clarkson, David Bolland and Mason Raymond. Other such newcomers as Trevor Smith and Peter Holland can also fly. Even with injuries, the Leafs have enough skill to control the puck more efficiently.
• What has befallen the club’s terrific penalty kill – ranked second in the NHL last season and 20th this year. Most would agree killing penalties is more coach-able than executing the powerplay, which relies on deftness and ability. The P-K is mostly about positioning and energy – the will to deny opponents an edge in manpower. Leafs clearly wanted to be the best during the abbreviated schedule a year ago, but do not seem to have nearly the same desire so far this season. Why?
• How Leafs can account for the decline in performance among several of their brightest prospects. Kadri, Cody Franson and Jake Gardiner were monsters in the playoff round against the Bruins last May and are now stagnant. In fact, the entire blue line – gifted with puck-control savvy – is in a quagmire. Most scoring thrusts begin in defensive territory with speed and accuracy in head-manning the puck, or skating the puck into the neutral zone. Leafs were superb in both pursuits a year ago and their defensemen were among the league leaders in goals and points. This season, the blue-liners seem content to fire the puck around the end-boards or casually chip it off the glass. It is resulting in copious giveaways and contributing to a wide edge in puck control by the opposition and inflated number of shots on the Leaf net.
None of these concerns add up to a “vendetta” against Carlyle. As mentioned in Tuesday’s blog, his coaching credentials are unassailable. But, even prime NHL coaches are vulnerable to “message deficiency” – when players begin tuning out their critical advice. It wouldn’t seem that Carlyle has guided Leafs long enough for such a malaise to set in. The team, however, is not performing as efficiently as it did a year ago.
And, you better believe the coach is a part of that equation.
PRESIDENT GRAPES: Overkill took on an entirely new meaning Thursday when the Toronto Star – on its website – posted a headline saying Don Cherry would “address the nation” on Saturday regarding the colossal TV deal between Rogers Communications and the NHL. Address the nation? Isn’t that what heads of state do in times of national crisis? Didn’t Ronald Reagan “address the nation” after seven astronauts were killed in the space shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986? Didn’t George H. W. Bush “address the nation” when the U.S. began an aerial assault on Baghdad in 1991? Or, Barack Obama, after one of his Navy SEAL’s put a bullet in bin Laden’s head? In all due respect to Donald S. Cherry, that’s what comes to mind when I hear the term “address the nation.”
FACEBOOK: HOWARD BERGER [TORONTO]