TORONTO – The days of wide open hockey are over. Gone is the free-flowing, opportunity-trading game that put the Toronto Maple Leafs on course for another season outside the playoffs.
Randy Carlyle’s first couple days as head coach centred around tightening things up.
“I think every team can play better defensively,” Carlyle said Monday. “Everybody practises defensive zone coverage, everybody practises neutral ice defensive schemes and everybody practises their forecheck. … We’re no different. It just might be a little different from what the previous coaching staff had in place.
“That’s all. We’re going to continually focus on being somewhat more conservative as far as giving people up in the offensive zone.”
It could be a significant shift for the Leafs, who have had trouble keeping the puck out of their net this season. While much of the blame for that fell on goaltenders Jonas Gustavsson and James Reimer under previous coach Ron Wilson, Carlyle seems intent on shifting the onus to his forwards and defencemen as well.
Following a 3-1 victory over Montreal in Carlyle’s debut on Saturday night, the Leafs went through a crash course in the new coach’s system. He kept players on the ice for roughly two hours of practice on both Sunday and Monday.
“That’s all part of the learning curve that we feel is necessary to get our message (across) and to sell our program to these players at this time,” said Carlyle.
Under Wilson, the Leafs gained a reputation as being one of the fastest teams in the NHL. However, the wide-open style he championed didn’t translate particularly well to the nights where his players didn’t have their best.
There will be no magic elixir for a team sitting 12th in the Eastern Conference. The Leafs recalled energy forward Jay Rosehill on Monday and might insert him into the lineup Tuesday against the Boston Bruins.
With Wilson at the helm, Rosehill dressed for just 16 games before being sent to the American Hockey League 10 days ago. He’ll likely get more of an opportunity under Carlyle, who tends to favour a rough-and-tumble game.
The 26-year-old winger is one of many players in the dressing room feeling rejuvenated.
“There’s a different energy here and rightfully so,” said Rosehill. “After making a big change like we did, I’m sure that would be the case for any team.”
Captain Dion Phaneuf met with Carlyle on Monday morning and said afterwards that “it’s a fresh start for everyone.”
He expects that to be reflected in the game against Boston, which has beaten Toronto four times this season by a combined scored of 23-6.
“Right now we’re not looking into the past,” said Phaneuf. “It’s a big game for both teams, but we’re not concentrating on the negatives of how we’ve played against them. We’ve got to come out, we’ve got to build on the way that we played in Montreal and keep getting better as a group.”
It’s been a whirlwind stretch for Carlyle.
He was playing golf on Wednesday afternoon in Anaheim, Calif., before finding himself addressing the Leafs for the first time in Montreal just 48 hours later. The former NHL defenceman, who grew up in Sudbury, Ont., and spends his summers at a cottage on Manitoulin Island, has been overwhelmed by the reaction to his hiring.
“I didn’t realize that I had so many friends that had the area code 416, 905 and 647,” said Carlyle.
During his previous stint with the Anaheim Ducks, he earned a reputation of being a coach that demanded a lot from his players. On Monday, he pledged to keep an open line of communication with everyone around him in Toronto—from players to members of the media.
“The less fibs that you tell, then you don’t have to have a good memory,” said Carlyle. “It’s important that I be as honest as I possibly can and open and forward with the players.”
Citing superstition, he made it clear that one area that will remain off-limits is discussing which goaltender will start each night. That’s been a hot-button topic in Toronto this season with Gustavsson and Reimer splitting time in the net.
Gustavsson earned the victory in Montreal and will likely get the call again on Tuesday.
With the Leafs looking to make up ground in the playoff race and only 17 games remaining, the margin for error is slim. That’s especially true with the Bruins in town.
“Any time you get a chance to go up against that type of competition, you better be prepared to give your ‘A’ game for 60 minutes,” said Carlyle. “That’s what we have to do.”
It likely won’t be pretty. At this stage, he has absolutely no interest in style points.
“You’ve got to find ways to win,” said Carlyle. “It’s not easy to win in the NHL. Everybody knows that.”
Note: Carlyle’s first game as Leafs coach drew CBC’s largest audience of the season. The network says an average audience of more than 2.5 million viewers tuned in to “Hockey Night in Canada” on Saturday.