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I like Joey Crabb and everything, but is this what we’ll be watching going forward?

Maybe it’s just watching the Leafs yet again play late-season games that (to them) mean nothing except as an audition for next year. But at the risk of sounding like a perpetually disgruntled Leaf fan (which, as hopefully most of you know, is not the intended tone of the site) I am a bit confused as to what is happening with the team just now.  (Didn’t you feel as though the season was officially “over” when Carlyle was laughing on the bench before the shoot-out?  That wouldn’t be the case if they were fighting for something.  I mean, it's great that people are relaxed, but it more shows that it just doesn't really matter anymore...) 

Maybe it’s more that I just don’t like what I’m seeing with the “new-look” Leafs and it will all have to grow on me. 

The Leafs took three points out of four on the weekend, against two very good teams.  I should be pleased.  They seemed to play their "system" well, though it was hardly inspiring stuff.  But I would expect at least that, given that they have fallen out of the playoff race, face zero pressure now and are trying to impress a new coach. 

Here’s the problem for me: three months ago we were a fast-skating, move the puck quickly, “sudden offense” kind of team.  We played hard and fast  most nights, had some jump and scored enough goals to win a fair number of games.  Even the perennially lousy penalty-killing was getting better in the new year.  There were plenty of issues, I well realize, and we discussed them all here.  The Leafs didn’t stand up for one another a ton, and that has been an issue, yes.  We did not have real team toughness.  They obviously had off and on goaltending and certainly the young, sometimes over-rated defense made too many mistakes.  Our first line didn’t always like to back-check but even with all that, the Leafs were, by and large, an entertaining team to watch.  And until the awful slump, they were generally OK—and fun to watch most of the time. 

We were led to believe this was the kind of team (and style of play), more or less, that was approved, endorsed and supported by Leaf management.  Of course, we all know things slid suddenly and very badly at the end of Ron Wilson’s tenure, but after building precisely the kind of team I described above, in came a new coach (which I want to believe was not about “salvaging” this season but a long-term move) with a seemingly different mindset.

We had a Wilson team, or so it seemed, at least, but now we suddenly had Randy Carlyle as the coach.

With a Wilson roster and a Carlyle philosophy, Toronto now seemingly often plays fear-driven hockey, with an emphasis on defensive play.   (Maybe I misunderstood his comment, but Carlyle basically said before the New Jersey game Friday night that he wants them to play so conservatively that they limit any possibility of making a mistake.)

This should be fun, eh?

Look, anyone who knows this site also knows I had no patience for Wilson’s public/media persona. It wasn’t necessary and I didn't like it.  The guy just didn’t get it when it came to the fan base and the local (albeit sometimes annoying) media.  He too often sounded like he had the hardest, most miserable job in the world, when it actually has to be one of the best.

But let’s set that aside.  Are we now going to entirely re-write history and try to claim the guy is a lousy NHL coach?  I mean, he was not great behind the bench here, and the results speak for themselves.  I’m not the leader of the “vote for Wilson” campaign, but still, the guy can coach.  He did just fine in Anaheim, Washington and San Jose, including some playoff success.  Here, not so much, obviously.  But let’s not try to say that the team under Wilson had no system, weren’t coached or didn’t care about playing hard, or even being tough.  Heck, Wilson benched guys, including Kessel, at various points in his tenure behind the Leaf bench, when he thought they weren’t pulling their weight.  He was not a “soft” coach.  Now, I will say this:  I’ve never bought the whole Wilson/Burke “blue and white disease” and entitlement thing.  I think that was bogus from the get-go, to make themselves seem like saviours.  And we can debate Wilson's decisions around goaltending, his special teams failures, etc.  But Wilson’s teams, even when they were lousy, usually played hard, at least. 

At the end of his time here, yes, they struggled badly.  But every team that loses its confidence looks disorganized and like they don’t know what they’re doing.  Some very good NHL coaches have been caught in that vortex and when their teams couldn’t get out of it, they were dismissed, just like Wilson.

Again, my point is not to canonize Wilson.  I’m sure he did bruise some players (Schenn, we hear now…) but we weren’t complaining as much when Lupul and Kessel were setting the league on fire in the first half of the season and everyone kept saying how well the Leafs were doing even though they were “the youngest team in the league”.

My point is simply, we’ve been pointing our guns at the ex-coach, when there are some people higher up the food chain that we should be talking about.  I’ll post more on that soon, but for now, I will simply say this:  I’m sure Carlyle, a guy who has won a Cup and everything, is a good coach.  I believe he is.  He plays the tough-guy role, wants rough hockey, lots of fights, loves match-ups and a tight defensive structure.  Great.  He may be a perfect tonic for what the Leafs need. (Most of the league plays defensively, so we may as well be as boring as everyone else, I guess.  Fans won’t be complaining about Tampa’s boring “system” any more, not after watching the Leafs under Carlyle.)

But with this roster right now, goodness, we are not very exciting.  Not many shots on goal, are there?  Sure, there were some enjoyable moments in the Ranger game Saturday night.  And yes, the “checking” line of Connolly, Steckel and Crabb (our “third” line, as our fourth line doesn’t play any more, it seems…) had a nice game.  But the night before, we got to watch Steckel plays about 23 minutes—Joey Crabb almost that much.  Meanwhile, Phil Kessel played less than that, and about the same as Tim Connolly against the Devils.  If this is the way it’s going to be, well, count me among the un-impressed.  (Against New York, Crabb played 18 minutes, Steckel 19, Lombardi 23 and Connolly 21.  Kessel was back up to 25, which made more sense…)

With those kinds of minutes, that line should be putting up some offensive numbers, shouldn’t they?

I’m prepared for people to say, “c’mon Michael, who cares about ice time?  Winning is the most important thing.  Carlyle knows what he’s doing.  He won a Cup…”

By all means, as always, share your views.  That’s what this forum is for.  But that fact that a guy has won a Cup (with an outstanding team) doesn’t necessarily mean he’s a great coach.  Over time Carlyle didn’t adjust in Anaheim, and that’s part of the reason he was fired.  The team tuned him out.  That said, plenty of really good coaches get fired.  It happens all the time.  Carlyle won’t be the last.  And as I said above, I happen to think the guy is a good coach.

(Just because a guy has not won a Cup, does not mean is not a good NHL coach.   Alain Vigneault is a pretty good coach, I’d say.  So is Barry Trotz.   So are Lindy Ruff, Dave Tippett and Bruce Boudreau.  So was Ron Wilson.  Marc Crawford won a Stanley Cup, but I wouldn’t want him coaching the Leafs.  Is Bob Hartley a great coach because he won a Cup with a fantastic team?  I don’t know.  I’m simply pointing out that having—or not having—a Cup on your resume doesn’t convince me much one way or the other. 

I hope Carlyle is the answer—or at least part of it.  I know the roster should be better next season, infused with all the young talent we keep being told about down on the farm.  But whoever plays here next season, while winning is, yes, important, I sure hope I’m not watching our third-line guys playing 23 minutes a night.  And if they are, I hope we’re so good that the third line is Kessel, Lupul and some superstar rookie center…


  1. I felt very much the same. I was thinking... gee whiz...I don't want to watch twenty minutes of Steckel every game.

    I am hoping this will work itself out and that it's mostly due to injuries. With Lupul healthy, the Kessel line would get more time.

    Grabovski's line was also affected by the injuries to MacArthur and Kulemin. When they were healthy, Carlyle did play the Grabovski line.

    Carlyle might also be testing lines and seeing if he can find a way to win on the nights that the puck isn't going in. There have been many good teams that could beat you with defense when the big guns were not firing. I always thought that was one of the Wilson era Leafs biggest flaws.

    Finally, this might be a subtle message to Kessel: "Cut down on the cheating and use your speed to come back and check and tie up a stick or I have to give more time time to the third line. Play better defense and I will give you more time."

  2. All the points you raise make sense, DP, including the injuries and Carlyle's future expectations for Kessel.

    I just hope the Leafs will still be an exciting team to watch...Thanks DP.

  3. I'm with you Michael, watching Steckel and Crabb play 20 minutes a night is not really what I shell out the money for on center ice.

    I've mentioned this in the past but if Steckel is playing that much the Leafs are going no where fast. They score a few goals here and there but really other than face offs what else does Steckel do that is anything beyond 4th line marginal at best? Here in Leaf land we are so desperate for actual real stars that we elevate marginal players into something they are not. I'll say it again a team playing Steckel and Crabb at more than 4th line minutes is not a very good or deep team.

    As a side note this year I haven't fallen asleep on the couch watching the game this year until the last 2-3 games. This is boring hockey, I don't care what anybody says about systems or learning new styles this is plain old bad boring hockey. It reminds me of the old Ottawa Senators under Jaques Martin, the ones that if they scored first usually won, if they didn't they lost because they never ever opened it up to play to score even when down a goal or two. They only played to not get scored on. Not something I'm really interested in watching. I'll probably get the package next year but if it is this dreadful then that will be it. With two young children I could always use the $200 or so for something (probably food for the boy, do all boys eat like that, I mean its just non stop).

  4. Willbur, I love your point that as Leaf fans we tend to elevate players into something they aren't. We do that, for sure. When a guy scores a goal, suddenly he's "been playing great lately" or his "having a great game". Sometimes they just scored a goal. Full stop. That's what guys are supposed to do. It doesn't always mean they are playing well. Let's not make it more than it is.

    We all understand they are just playing out the string, but it's annoying that we're doing it with a team full of fourth-line players. And people get excited when one of these guys score a goal. Big deal. We need a lot more than the occasional nice game from what should be our fourth line....

    Yes, it's important to have balanced scoring, and that everybody contributes. But I sure don't want guys who should be with the Marlies taking all the ice team.

    (Regarding your reference to your made me laugh. I used to call our two younger ones "the boy" when they were kids. And yes, I think it's a universal that they all eat- a lot.....) Take care, Willbur.

  5. A good example of fans elevating players is the response to Ashton. Understand that I am not ragging on him just using him as an example. He has been up for 11 games now I think or there abouts. I remember the comments after his first couple of games, he sure looks like a player, someone who forchecks well and works hard not afraid to hit. A lot of people said wow look at him go he could be a big time player for the Leafs and he might be but he isn't yet. Now he toils on the fourth line with no points getting 4 minutes a night.

    My point is this, people lauded him for doing the things he should be doing at a minimum. He should work hard every shift, he should forcheck hard and he should hit. These are minimal skills that all NHL players should have. It speaks volumes about the state of the Leafs that minimal skills gets rave reviews. The guy hasn't scored in 11 games and quite clearly still belongs on the Marlies.

    Again this isn't to bash Ashton who still has a future in the NHL, just not right now. But he illustrates the point very well how we elevate players for really doing nothing special. Good word is the bar ever set low.

  6. Completely agree, Willbur. As you may recall, I wondered aloud here from the get-go why Ashton (again, like you, nothing personal) was here, It was clear to me this was about making Burke look like he had done something at the deadline.

    He showed up, didn't deserve the call-up. Predictably, he played hard, hit a few guys. That's what all young players do at first when they are trying to impress. Eventually, they settle into playing like the player they are. That's not to say he won't be a lot better in two years. But it was a stretch (and not fair to other Marlies) to call him up. And, as you say, yet another example of the way the Leafs are run, and how we, as fans, over-react to every little thing.

    It's fine to be optimistic and hopeful. I try to provide some of that here. But we also need to be realistic in our assessments and expectations.

  7. Before Wilson, I used to end up doing a crossword puzzle while the game was on TV because the games was boring. Under Wilson, I enjoyed watching the Leafs as the games were very entertaining even when we didn't win. I rarely got the feeling that my team gave up when they got behind in a game and several times they did mount a comeback.
    I have yet to see a Leaf game on TV under Carlyle but I have listened on the internet radio and the play seems to be all in our own end. The shots stats would seem to indicate we aren't getting much in the way of chances.
    I expect when I get home I better dig out my book of puzzles and be prepared to be bored.
    When the Leafs were so boring, I used to say that I enjoyed watching the Edmonton Oilers play - even in recent years when they weren't winning and especially now they have some great young players. I was really pleased to see Wilson adopt that style of play.
    I am a hockey fan and I like to see real action at both ends of the rink. I appreciate great defensive plays as well and I don't need a 9-8 score but I cannot stand to be bored to death by teams that play defense to the exclusion of offensive chances.
    I am not looking forward to the future of the Leafs under the current coach if recent games are an indicator of the future.

  8. We're on the same page, Ed. I thought Burke was an advocate of playing an entertaining game in this market. I guess not.

    Like you, I don't want 9-8 games. But playing what amounts to a version of the trap is awful.

    Watch Edmonton in the years ahead. If they get the right coach, they will be exciting, and I would bet, successful.

  9. Kieran Brett, Hockey AlmightyMarch 25, 2012 at 1:38 PM

    I begin to believe the problem is Burke. Has you ever seen a GM in this league so self-aware? How much time does his spend cultivating his persona? The look-at-me undone necktie, the everyone-knows-my-history arrogance, the stage Irishman faux-pugnacity. I don't believe he cares about the team. How many GMs are much lower profile, but judging by wins, much more effective. I've had it with the rock-star GM. Give me a quiet-but-effective Jim Gregory kind of guy. Maybe Nonis?

  10. For me, Kieran, you've hit the nail on the head. Interesting that you raise this today. I'm hoping to post something late tonight on this very subject.

    I appreciate your taking the time to comment here, Kieran. Thanks.

  11. They have certainly created a problem for themselves by bringing in a coach with a style so different to the one they've built the roster for. I'm just not close enough to it all to have a considered opinion on the relative merits of Wilson and Carlyle, and frankly I see little point in criticising Burke, but the situation seems to necessitate one of two types of off-season.

    Either we (a) blow the roster to hell and fill it full of players who can play Carlyle's way, or (b) Carlyle adjusts his strategies to best coach the quality of player he has on his roster.

    My opinion? Go for (b). I have no idea what happened to the Leafs in Feb-Mar but surely they didn't all suddenly become talentless nobodies. And I think one-dimensional coaches are dangerous whether they focus solely on either offense or defense.

  12. It will be interesting to see how this all unfolds, Kiwi Leaf. I'd be surprised if they "blew up the roster" as the preferred option, but we'll see. My guess is it will be a hybrid approach. They'll look for more Carlyle-type players and we'll also see Carlyle adjust to his roster a certain degree.

    That said, we know he is a line-matcher, so the ice-time issue may be one to watch next season.

    Thanks for joining in.

  13. I doubt that after 82 games next year that Carlyle's 3rd line will have had more ice time than his first line has played. Right now these are nothing games and Carlyle is using them to send a message to his players. Kessel is a very talented player, he has a talent that you can't teach, you either have or you don't. But like many people who are very talented he has to be treated very carefully or you risk losing him. Carlyle is a very smart coach and I think he is using the remaining games to send a message to Kessel and the rest of the team. It will be much better for Carlyle and the team if he gets his message across without having to lock horns with any of the players, especialy Kessel.

    As to the style of play the Leafs will have to play I would suggest we all watch the Penguins, they have 3 of the best forwards in the NHL, one of the best goalies, and a very good defence and yet they don't exactly play a run and gun game like Wilson wanteed the Leafs to play. If what is probably the most talented team in thec NHL feels the need to play a good team defence then the Leafs with all their warts will have to play a much more different game than they did under Wilson. It may not be very entertaining to watch but for the team to have any chance to make the playoffs next year it is the type of game that this team with this talent level must play. If we like it or not most of this team is going to be back next year, and make the playoffs they must or Burke will be shown to be an absolute bust and will find himself unemployed. Not quite the legacy a legend in his own mind would like have.

  14. All fair points, mrj.

    I don't intend to suggest the Leafs do not need to have a focus on improved defensive play. They do.

    But I do wonder where we are headed. Te be a tougher team, they will need tougher players, no matter how hard Carlyle pushes. Maybe, like Tortorella and Hitchcock (until players tune them out eventually) Carlyle can drive the team to play with the required edge. But talent and experience is required as well.

    We'll see if the Leafs going forward will have the combination of traits needed to be successful. A coach can create a certain environment. Ultimately a player has to have the will to do the tough jobs, and work hard on defence.

    Good post. Thanks mrj.

  15. I think everyone is just over reacting a little bit here. You play sloppy hockey like we did the first half of the season and have no chance of winning a playoff round. We were lucky to be where we were halfway through the season. It may be boring but it is the right direction to make the change.

    At the end of the day would you rather say "Ya it was kinda boring but we won!" or "Sucks we lost but it sure was entertaining"?

  16. I haven't read the comments, because in the UK, it's already 4:25 in the morning. I don't care who I see on the Ice, Langz... I only care about who performs. If I give Steckel 28 minutes of Ice time and the man puts up a 1g 1a, +2, and a positive Corsi rating (hypothetically), would I be inclined to tell him to kick off? No. I wouldn't be. I don't agree w/ giving them more time on the ice.

    But I also ignored your entire paragraph which started w/ this: "But let’s set that aside. Are we now going to entirely re-write history and try to claim the guy is a lousy NHL coach? I mean, he was not great behind the bench here, and the results.."

    I don't care. I don't care how glorious the history of a coach. I don't care how long or how effectively he coached. All I know are the coaches I like and the coaches I do not. After watching Marleau disintegrate under Wilson, I had determined he was not the coach I ever wanted for an "up and coming" approach. I agree somewhere he might be something; but I had certainly made up my mind that Toronto is not somewhere he ought to be.

    Anyways, in a nutshell my point is this: if I were a new coach heading into a divebomb of an end of a season, I'd award the playing time to whoever the !@£$ deserved it (mind you Komisarek got some at the beginning of his tenure and for the world's sake it is diminishing yet again).