TORONTO – Armed with a ticket in the draft lottery, the Toronto Maple Leafs can expect plenty of changes as they move forward from the wreckage of another season.
Not only will general manager Brian Burke spend the summer tinkering with his roster, but coach Randy Carlyle has pledged to return with a sharper edge. His 36-day stint to finish the year was largely spent trying to rebuild the confidence of a fragile group and players should expect to see much more of his noted demanding side in the fall.
“That’s the way I’ve been taught to approach the game,” Carlyle said after Saturday’s season-ending 4-1 loss in Montreal. “You don’t play the game to be second, you come here to win. You play the game to win.
“And if there’s things within the game that you feel that are necessary to be pushed then the push will come.”
Carlyle wasn’t very pleased with the 6-9-3 stretch that came after he replaced Ron Wilson on March 2. He tried in vain to implement a more defensive system and spoke frequently of the importance of giving something back to the passionate fans who have suffered through seven consecutive seasons outside of the playoffs.
Toronto is the only NHL team to miss the post-season every year since the lockout.
The pressure to end that miserable run will be immense next season, when Carlyle plans to start cracking the whip. Known for holding long practice sessions, he’s going to demand more intensity and effort from everyone than he saw this year.
“There’s going to be an understanding that what has transpired is only the tip of the iceberg on our expectations,” said Carlyle.
The Leafs players are scheduled to go through exit meetings and medicals on Monday before heading their separate ways. Part of the off-season will be devoted to figuring out how the sixth-place team in the Eastern Conference on Feb. 6 tumbled all the way to lottery position over the final two months.
Toronto finished 26th overall with 80 points, leaving the franchise with an 8.1 per cent chance of landing the No. 1 pick in Tuesday’s draft lottery. At the very worst, the team will select sixth, giving Burke an opportunity to add a solid prospect to the stable in June.
The Leafs GM will be searching for a little more stability in goal on the free agent or trade market. Amazingly, the team has used 15 different goaltenders since the lockout—only Tampa, with 18, has employed more—and could have another new one in the fold next season after finishing 29th in goals against.
The changes won’t end there, although Burke will need to be creative with almost US$58 million already committed to players.
“I’m sure there will be changes, as there are in every team going forward,” said captain Dion Phaneuf. “That’s the tough part of this business.”
Toronto managed just 10 wins after the all-star break in late January, the lowest total of any team in the league. They also set a new franchise mark for futility while dropping 11 straight games on home ice.
It was a confidence-crushing finish that left players struggling for answers.
“You’ve got to learn how to win in the tough times,” said defenceman John-Michael Liles, who at 31 is the oldest player on the roster. “I’ve been through that in other places. I think that we can take a lot of lessons out of this last stretch.”
Carlyle believes the key to a turnaround next season lies with becoming a much stingier team—a task he doesn’t see as being too difficult. However, he’s unwilling to promise anything beyond the fact the Leafs will work harder next year.
“I don’t think you make statements about your team’s ability to make the playoffs in the summer, the spring or in the fall,” said Carlyle. “I think you go out and earn it.”
One of the few bright spots for the organization this season was the play of the American Hockey League’s Marlies, who appear poised for a run at the Calder Cup this spring.
On Sunday, goalie Ben Scrivens, defenceman Jake Gardiner and forward Matt Frattin were assigned to the AHL team. Energy line player Jay Rosehill will also join the Marlies if he clears waivers on Tuesday.