Leafs Lacking “Hockey I.Q.”

By HOWARD BERGER

TORONTO (Feb. 4) — Though demeaning and likely counterproductive, perhaps Randy Carlyle was onto something when he called his Maple Leaf players “brain dead” last season. In earlier years, when Carlyle played defense here in Toronto, he would have yanked at his golden locks. At age 58 — and coaching the team — ol’ Randy was going bald.

“I didn’t necessarily approve of Randy’s words but I sure knew where he was coming from,” explained, to me, a person that had spent much time — until this season — around the current Leafs. “I don’t want you to use my name because it will come across as sour grapes. So, you can take this for whatever it’s worth. The Leafs are a very talented team but many of the top players have a problem: Their heads cannot keep up with their hands or feet. It was clear through much of last season and is undeniable right now. This group isn’t overflowing with hockey I.Q.”

Harsh words, indeed, and perhaps — as acknowledged — spoken with a tinge of bitterness. Yet words that are difficult to counter. When asked which players he was referring to, the person replied, “That’s as far as I’m going. I’ve probably said too much already… I’ll let you take it from here. But, I want to distinguish between what I call ‘hockey I.Q.’ and intellect off the ice. They are separate entities. Most of the current Leaf players are well–spoken and schooled. And, pretty darned good guys.”

With that, my contact hung up the phone and left me the baton. Not altogether comfortably, I might add, but I’ll take a stab at what I think he was saying. In my view, he spoke primarily about three core players: Dion Phaneuf, Jake Gardiner and Nazem Kadri. I won’t be breaking any news here for those that watch the Leafs on a regular basis. Phaneuf, Gardiner and Kadri are multi–talented; have soft hands and can skate like the wind (Phaneuf looks slower because he’s bigger). Yet, decision–making — the ability to react quickly and efficiently with or without the puck — isn’t on par with their skill–sets. Phaneuf and Gardiner are regularly caught out of position in the defensive zone while Kadri has more brain cramps in the neutral zone than anyone on the team. Given the speed of hockey, these aren’t lapses that can be measured in time. A fraction of a second is all that’s required for a play to get messed up and for defensemen such as Phaneuf and Gardiner to be exposed.

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INDECISION BY NAZEM KADRI (43 ABOVE) AND JAKE GARDINER LED DIRECTLY TO NASHVILLE GOALS DURING THE TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS FRANCHISE–RECORD–TYING 10th CONSECUTIVE DEFEAT TUESDAY NIGHT AT BRIDGESTONE ARENA. JOHN RUSSELL GETTY IMAGES/NHL.COM

How often, during the Maple Leafs epic slump since mid–December, has a TV replay shown Gardiner trailing an opposition goal–scorer to the net? Or Phaneuf making an incorrect read with the puck along the boards? Occasionally, these mistakes are compounded by teammates that are either too slow or too lazy to help out. I recall such an instance at Tampa Bay on Dec. 29. Phaneuf had the puck in the corner and may have slightly rushed his attempt to fire it around the dasher toward the blue line. Had David Clarkson been properly positioned, however, he would have chipped the puck off the boards and into neutral territory. Instead, Phaneuf’s clearing attempt was intercepted and Tampa scored seconds later (the Leafs coughed up a 2–0 lead and were beaten, 3–2).

In Nashville on Tuesday, coach Peter Horachek nailed Kadri’s hide to the bench after a couple of glaring miscues near center — the first of which led directly to a shorthanded breakaway goal by Seth Jones that put the Predators on top, 1–0, at 11:52 of the opening period. Considering the Maple Leafs were defeated by one (4–3), it proved a rather costly mistake. Kadri, as we know, can be murder around the net but his lethargy in the neutral zone is maddening to Horachek — as it was to Carlyle and Ron Wilson. Which indicates it may not be resolvable.

Phil Kessel has indisputable skill and quickness, though he often chooses to shelve his hockey intellect. How many times does Kessel bail on a rush by firing an uncontested shot on goal from 35 or 40 feet that you and I could stop? When Kessel puts on the breaks or deftly circles with the puck, he almost always sets up a scoring chance. So, brain power — a strength for Fast Phil — is effective only when utilized.

Hockey I.Q. contributes to goaltending as well — particularly today with respect to handling the puck beside and in back of the net. The gold standard, of course, was Martin Brodeur: a de facto third defenseman during his Stanley Cup years with New Jersey. This, too, is a noticeable flaw with the Maple Leafs, as neither Jonathan Bernier nor James Reimer react quickly enough in the perimeter of their goal. If the Toronto defensemen are similarly indecisive, it creates a volatile mix. Easy goals are scored by the opposition. Losses tend to mount. Coaches are fired.

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“WHY ME?” RANDY CARLYLE IN FAMILIAR POSTURE BEHIND THE LEAFS BENCH.

So, maybe Carlyle could have chosen a softer term than “brain dead” while having post–game conniptions a year ago. But in February 2015, it remains nearly impossible to dispute the tenor of his remarks.

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