Time to Tweak?

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I’ve been an advocate of Randy Carlyle hockey since last season, even when the results didn’t immediately improve after he replaced Ron Wilson. It remains to be seen, but I think he’s getting the Leafs to play the game the way it needs to be played to get more out of less and have consistent success in this league. Even if the Leafs are making too many errors in their execution as of late, they have been, overall, a more organized, detail-oriented, physical and hard-working group this season.

I liked that Tim Connolly never got a sniff of the lineup this season, that Matthew Lombardi was jettisoned, that Komisarek has been stapled to the press box and that Carlyle has given opportunities to some new blood, but that’s not to say I’ve agreed with his every personnel decision to date. For the most part, the results are on Carlyle’s side. I’m curious to see now, after a 0-2-1 mini-skid in which the Leafs have allowed 13 goals (their poor play really dates back to the third period of the 5-4 win over Ottawa), if Carlyle makes the adjustments needed to help curb a potential tailspin. Carlyle owed the group that got him the 15-9 start more benefit of the doubt than to change pieces after a competitive loss to Boston and a shootout loss to the Penguins. Taken in combination with night’s embarrassing 5-2 loss to the Jets, however, it’s concerning enough to me to justify a change or two.

You could make the argument that the Leafs goaltending has come back down to Earth a bit recently, which was always to some degree going to bring the Leafs back down to Earth with it. Reimer hasn’t had his best few games, but the problem is far more to do with the fact that the Leafs are spending too much time hemmed in their own zone and not enough time on attack. This was always a problem, but it was really bad last night, and the Leafs have been both breaking down more in their defensive zone coverage and not getting bailed out as often by their goaltender.

The Leafs will never be a dominant possession team as currently constituted, but when the Leafs are especially struggling at spending enough time in the right end of the rink it’s usually attributable to a couple of things:

1) The Leafs are getting closed down through the neutral zone or at the blueline, forcing them to dump the puck in and try to retrieve it. On Saturday night, Pittsburgh couldn’t shift into shutdown mode in order to kill out the game (like the Jets did in the third period last night). The Leafs were able to hit the blueline with speed and attack the Penguins in waves. Against the Jets, the Leafs tried to launch a similar comeback attempt but were stymied and scored on by the counterattack.

The Leafs can also occasionally chip and chase and use their speed and willingness to finish checks to cause havoc on the forecheck/get their cycle came going. However, they don’t seem to be able to sustain the tempo required to do this effectively over a full 60 minutes (not easy to do).

2) They’re struggling with the efficiency of their breakout, and with the number of giveaways, hemming them in their own end for extended periods of time. The group Carlyle is deploying and what he asks of them is really the stark opposite to Ron Wilson and his reliance on his defence’s engagement in the rush (thus why Liles and Gardiner played much bigger roles). Not that I want the wide open, run-and-gun stuff again, and I hated the culture of outscoring our problems, but I worry that we’re starting to lose the balance every good defence needs with all of Holzer, Fraser, Kostka back there.

There are a few things Carlyle could do differently with what he already has at this disposal.

Giving the Grabovski line more minutes with more offensive looks might be part of the solution to problem #1. This is the team’s best possession line, has one of the Leafs better assets down low in Nikolai Kulemin, and has a centerman who, despite his size, is avid and often successful in his puck pursuits. But the line is being deployed in such a way where it’s merely hoping to tread water, with it’s heavy dosage of defensive zone faceoffs coming against the toughest of competition. The concept of a second checking line might come to fruition when Joffrey Lupul is available, possibly by early next week. With a full deck up front, McClement and Komarov may be bumped from the top 9 and perhaps can form a second checking unit on fourth line, able to take on a share of the defensive zone assignments the Grabovski line has been so bogged down by.

As for problem #2, getting Jake Gardiner, or if Gardiner really isn’t ready, John Michael Liles back in the lineup could help with the need for more mobility and puck moving ability on the backend. If Carlyle is waiting to hear that Gardiner is “too good for the AHL,” I’m not sure he’ll ever hear it, but Eakins seemed convinced he’s good to go. Anyways, as I tweeted last night, it was easy for a team like the Jets to close down on the Leafs breakout when they have a serious shortage of defencemen capable of rushing the puck. I suppose Carlyle likes what Holzer, Kostka and Fraser bring from the standpoint of protecting the net, but the Leafs need a defence capable of taking the proactive approach known as spending less time in their own zone.

These options rest on Carlyle budging on a few of his seemingly stricter coaching policies:

1) Lefties and Righties – Carlyle seems to like the defenceman’s position to match their handedness for a variety of reasons, including holding the boards for the cycle in the o-zone, the safer breakout pass, and for stick preparedness in defensive positions. Liles and Gardiner are both lefthanded. The Leafs two best defencemen are lefthanded in Phaneuf and Gunnarsson, so too is Mark Fraser. All three of these guys aren’t going anywhere soon (nor should they). Franson, Kostka and Holzer meanwhile are righties, explaining Carlyle’s current pairings. Likely, Phaneuf would have to be moved back to the right, Gunnarsson would move up beside him on the left, Gardiner or Liles would play beside Kostka and the Fraser and Franson pairing would stay in tact, while Holzer joins the Marlies or spends some time in the press box. In this scenario, the only defenceman playing on his off side is Phaneuf, who has played the right quite a bit in the past.

2) The goons – Sitting one of Orr or McLaren, which hasn’t happened since the Leafs claimed McLaren off waivers on January 31st, is something Carlyle’s hand will be forced on if he’s going to fit the other 11 regulars in the lineup once Lupul returns. This is timed nicely with Colton Orr recently hitting the 400-game mark required to receive his pension. McLaren is young, has decent skating ability for a big man and can cycle a puck relatively well, in addition to proving himself as a heavyweight fighter, so I’d personally go with McLaren on most nights. But Carlyle can rotate as he sees fit.

It’s been almost a month since the Leafs rotated personnel on the blueline, and not that we should collectively panic after three games, but I tend to think the time has come to make an adjustment in a season where time is of the essence. What say you, MLHS?