On Monday afternoon, Toronto Maple Leafs VP of Hockey Operations Dave Poulin went on TSN 1050 Radio. During that segment Poulin said this about the Leafs most recent play:
Poulin "the short passing and support of the puck has been what has turned our game around." Hmm, what a surprise.
— Hope_Smoke (@Hope_Smoke) December 16, 2013
It’s odd that Poulin points to the Leafs’ improved puck movement and ability to support the play (another word for that is speed). I mean, this is the same Leafs team that determinedly kept players like Mark Fraser and Paul Ranger in the lineup over Morgan Rielly multiple times this season (and even Jake Gardiner once). The same team that wouldn’t even give John-Michael Liles a sniff during training camp (Liles played in one pre-season game). This is the same Liles whom couldn’t play despite taking up $3.875 million of precious cap space (only $925,000 of that came off the books when he was in the AHL). However, with all three of Liles, Gardiner and Rielly in the lineup at the expense of Ranger and Fraser, the Leafs have seemingly found their game. Much to the chagrin of Randy Carlyle.
We all know Carlyle does not like the speed type of game. Carlyle is a man who does not like his team to be called a rush one. Carlyle is a man who has said that his team performs better when they outhit the opposition. Lately the script has been flipped and I suddenly feel like I am being told the Leafs are at war with Eurasia. I was pretty sure it was Eastasia. When did the change occur?
Make no mistake, the Leafs have changed their tune. It happened somewhere in between the morning skate and puck drop with the Los Angeles Kings last Wednesday. At the morning skate it was all but confirmed that Rielly would be sitting out his 4th straight game. Carlyle made this comment in regards to Rielly:
Randy Carlyle says he wants Morgan Rielly to simplify his game. "We're doing the same thing with Jake Gardiner."
— Chris Johnston (@reporterchris) December 11, 2013
Puck movement and speed are not staples of Carlyle hockey. Dump ins, cycling and clearing out the front of the net are. So, after all this, why did Rielly end up getting into the lineup that night? What happened? Well, on TSN Radio at 6:15 that night Insider Darren Dreger opened up his segment by immediately saying the exclusion of Rielly was a coaching decision. Dreger then went on to say that he had a conversation with Leafs General Manager earlier that afternoon about Rielly in particular. Funny choice of words by Dreger (Nonis’ cousin for those that aren’t aware). He spoke to the GM of the Leafs earlier in the day which may illuminate why he can say with such certainty that Rielly not playing was Carlyle’s decision. Of course this comment from Dreger was less than two weeks from his “Carlyle better get used to Peter Holland whether he likes it or not” statement. In the week in between these two nuggets from Dreger, his colleague Bob McKenzie said the time had arrived for Nonis to sit down with Carlyle and tell him that he had to start playing Gardiner. Sounds like the heat has been turned up a little bit around Carlyle. Getting horribly outshot and outplayed most of the season will do that.
As the Kings game neared, news broke that Rielly was in fact going to be in the lineup. Carlyle then went against everything that he had said at any other point in the season when he admitted that the Leafs are a skating team. Far cry from what we have heard before. Carlyle’s breakout suddenly went from one where his defenseman launch a stretch pass to a stationary winger who chips the puck in to one where his puck moving blueliners create with their speed. It has been a refreshing change.
Has Carlyle finally come to his senses and learned how to properly use the players at his disposal or is this just an attempt to humour his superiors? What do I think? I think a leopard doesn’t change his spots. Carlyle likes safe hockey. He likes the Fraser’s and Jay McClement’s over the Liles’ and Holland’s. It took the Leafs going 6-8-3 (only two of those wins were in regulation) to facilitate this change in perspective. I’ll be shocked if it takes more than 2 straight losses before Carlyle reverts back to the style he prefers. For the record, that style isn’t one where short passes and support are emphasized. On the bright side, this team can get the job done when the right buttons are pushed.