TORONTO – Randy Carlyle isn’t letting the Toronto Maple Leafs simply play out the string.
A little more than three weeks after being hired as coach, Carlyle continues to put his players through gruelling practices that include plenty of teaching. The regular season is winding down and the playoffs have slipped from view, but Carlyle is determined to make the most of what little time he has left with the group this year.
“We’re about the now and what’s coming because we can’t change what’s happened,” Carlyle said Monday.
The Leafs have gone 4-6-2 since Carlyle replaced Ron Wilson on March 2. They need to avoid losing in regulation to the Carolina Hurricanes on Tuesday night to keep from being mathematically eliminated from playoff contention in the Eastern Conference.
But it’s been clear for a couple weeks that yet another season was heading in that direction, making the final month of the schedule more about building for next year than anything else.
Carlyle’s focus continues to be on the way the Leafs play in their own zone. He’s asking his players to be more conservative than they were under Wilson, hoping to limit turnovers by taking some of the emphasis off establishing a quick transition game.
“It’s just a bit more of a patient-type system I guess,” said defenceman Cody Franson. “When we get possession of (the puck), we don’t necessarily want to try and fly the zone as much as maybe we were before.”
The results have been mixed thus far. Toronto has allowed three or more goals in seven of the 12 games under Carlyle, including the last four in a row.
But the coach remains upbeat and seems to find some amusement in the daily questions about the length of his practices.
The Leafs spent about 90 minutes on the ice at their suburban practice facility on Monday—starting half an hour before the Hurricanes and remaining out longer than their next opponent. At one point, goaltending consultant Francois Allaire found himself pushing mounds of snow against the boards with a shovel as players chewed up the ice skating laps.
“Everybody knows he’s a tough coach,” forward Mike Brown said of Carlyle, whom he previously played under in Anaheim. “You know what you’re getting and you know what you’re getting every day.”
The Leafs and Hurricanes find themselves in virtually the same position. Tied with 75 points, they’re both starting to turn their attention to next season.
Carolina also went through an in-season coaching change with Kirk Muller taking over for Paul Maurice on Nov. 28. The team has gone 22-18-11 since that point and considered itself in the playoff chase until dropping back-to-back games against Columbus and Detroit over the weekend.
The focus now is on putting together a strong finish.
“We’re obviously a young team and we want to start to build something here for next year and the years to come,” said Hurricanes forward Jeff Skinner. “We want to sort of create an identity and be consistent about it.”
It’s the same type of message being hammered home by Carlyle.
He tends to get a little more animated on the bench than his predecessor—it’s not difficult to determine how Carlyle feels during a game—and has been more vocal on the practice ice during his short stint in Toronto. Every practice session includes plenty of time spent around the whiteboard.
Despite another lost season, the Leafs players are looking at their final six games as a chance to finish on a high note.
“You’re a professional athlete, you stay competitive no matter what,” said defenceman Luke Schenn. “Everyone hates to lose. You always push yourself to do better. You don’t want to show up to the rink and be embarrassed by another team.
“You’re playing for each other in this room. Just the overall atmosphere is a lot better when you win.”
The atmosphere has remained fairly positive under Carlyle.
Even though the coach arrived with the reputation of being tough on players, it hasn’t materialized so far. He’s remained patient with the team while trying to introduce a new style of play and concedes that he’s still getting comfortable in the new role.
“I think there’s lots of room for me to get more acquainted with the group,” said Carlyle.