It is official. With the Toronto Maple Leafs 3-0 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday night, combined with a Columbus Blue Jackets 4-3 overtime victory over the Phoenix Coyotes, the Leafs have collapsed, and are out of playoff contention. As it has been since about the midway point of the eight game losing streak that triggered the Leafs downward spiral in the standings in March, Leafs Nation is playing a little game: the blame game.
Blame for Randy Carlyle
Who is to blame for this 2011-12-esque collapse? Fingers have been pointed at the lack of secondary scoring, a porous defensive unit, and sub-par goaltending from James Reimer in Jonathan Bernier’s absence, but the majority of the blame seems to be directed at Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle. Many are calling for his dismissal, mainly for the fact that he was unable to correct the mistakes of this team, not just during the losing streak, but problems that plagued Toronto throughout the year.
Night in and night out this season, the Leafs were allowing their goaltenders to be peppered with shots, and at the moment are dead last in shots per game given up at 35.9 per game. The defensive unit has struggled mightily this season, especially with clearing the puck and working an efficient breakout, instead being hampered by continually turnovers or being beaten for the puck along the boards. Last year, Carlyle was able to improve a Leafs special teams unit that had been abysmal under Ron Wilson, taking the Leafs from a 24th ranked PP in 2011-12 to 14th in 2012-13, and the PK unit from 28th in 2011-12 to 2nd in 2012-13.
This year, the Leafs took a step backwards with their special teams, and Carlyle could be the one to blame for the regression.Though the Leafs are currently 5th in the league on the PP, they were at one point even higher, but have stumbled over the past two months. Opposing teams have begun to easily handle the Leafs zone entry, an entry they look reluctant to change, with the outlet pass to a stationary James van Riemsdyk at the blueline on the boards, hampering Toronto’s ability to set up their power-play. Also, the Leafs PK unit has plummeted to 28th this season, as other teams have figured out how to expose Carlyle’s Czech Press system that worked well last year, but is clearly not working in the present day.
Also, with the Leafs struggling to find a secondary scoring punch after the Kessel-Bozak-van Riemsdyk line, Carlyle has been reluctant to breakup Joffrey Lupul and Nazem Kadri, who have looked out of sync for most of the season, and has not given anyone else a real consistent chance to produce on the second line such as David Clarkson. Clarkson spent the past two seasons in New Jersey getting first or second line minutes, with consistent power play time, and since his arrival in Toronto is playing on the third line with virtually no power play ice-time. Yet, people wonder why he has not produced at the rate he did in New Jersey.
Blame on the Players
Though it is easy to blame the coach and use him as the scapegoat for the Leafs failures, how much of the blame lies on the players? Carlyle is adamant in the fact that the Leafs are not playing “proper” hockey, especially over the eight game losing streak. How much of what happened then could realistically be fixed by the coach?
In the first loss of the streak to Washington, could Carlyle coach Jay McClement and Dion Phaneuf to not take terrible penalties in the first period, giving the leagues best power play in the Capitals a chance so early? Could Carlyle do anything in the next three games when his team actually played quite well, only to have Reimer out-dueled by Jimmy Howard, Ben Bishop, and Carey Price, or stop Reimer from letting in three fairly weak goals in the first period in the fifth straight loss to New Jersey?
Also, on a more general scale covering the whole season, is the blame that Lupul had a mediocre year blamed on Carlyle, or the fact that Lupul appears to be made of glass, and was not playing a very physical game at all this year? Is Carlyle at fault for the continual turnovers and poorly timed pinches of Jake Gardiner, or does the blame lie at Gardiner’s feet for continuing to make the same mistakes over and over again. Is Carlyle to blame for not giving enough structural support to Nikolai Kulemin while on the PK, as Kulemin looks lost most nights, or does Kulemin simply not understand the system?
Fire the Coach? or Change the Players?
When trying to answer the ultimate question then, of whether Carlyle should be axed or not, I am not sure I can give a definitive answer. On one hand, it does seem as if Carlyle is responsible for certain problems that have bothered the Leafs all year, yet on the other hand, there are many mistakes made on behalf of the players that seem un-coachable.
Whatever ends up happening with Randy Carlyle, it is sure to be an interesting summer to say the least, as Leafs management will trying to solve the problems that killed the Maple Leafs 2013-14 season. It is clear that changes need to be made, but where do they start and do they include yet another change behind the bench, and the firing of Randy Carlyle?
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