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Heading into last night's game against the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Toronto Maple Leafs were firmly in a playoff spot, and just one point back of the Senators for the fifth seed in the East.
This was the case despite the fact that they'd lost their last three games, and allowed four goals or more in six of their last seven. People saw this latter trend as a sign that the Leafs had, in jumping out to an 11-8-0 start this season, gotten extremely lucky. They'd had a good start last season, too, and finished really poorly as everyone expected, so wasn't this just a function of them once again being bad and getting all their wins out of the way early?
The short answer, from what I've seen of the Maple Leafs' games this year, is no.
I picked Toronto to make the playoffs with a low seed this season, and I've seen very little from this team to dissuade me of that belief, at least when they play well. That hasn't been very often in the last week, admittedly, but when you're looking for reasons why, it sure isn't that James Reimer and Ben Scrivens are bad goalies (both entered last night with even strength save percentages above .920). Or that Phil Kessel and Nazem Kadri (both had 25 points in their first 27 games) and James van Riemsdyk (14 goals in 27) aren't effective forwards. Or even that the Leafs' defense beyond Dion Phaneuf and Carl Gunnarsson is about as deep as a kitchen sink.
It's because Randy Carlyle is managing the team like a first-time NHL13 player, and people only recently began to raise a serious stink about it.
The ways in which Carlyle has mishandled the Leafs' lines and pairings is myriad, but perhaps most famously revolves around Kadri.
Note again that Kadri is playing at nearly a point-a-game pace more than halfway through the season, and then consider that he's doing that with only about 15 minutes a night, less than seven Leafs forwards, making him, in essence, a third-line option. On the one hand, you can certainly argue that this in turn leads to the opportunity to do a better job of matching lines and giving Kadri slightly favorable zone starts (he was at 50.7 percent in the offensive zone through 26), but nonetheless he's devouring his opponents.
Never was this more clear than on Feb. 28, when Kadri had a hat trick against the Islanders despite only 15:46. Asked after the game if this justified a commensurate bump in ice time, Carlyle got snippy.
“If he plays only 15 minutes a night and scored three goals, would you keep him playing 15 minutes a night?” is an actual thing a real NHL coach said in real life.
And this lack of opportunity for Kadri comes at a time when the Leafs' situation down the middle looks more than a little dire. Kadri, at 25 points in 28 games, has 10 more than the next-closest pivot, Tyler Bozak, who is famously not good enough to be a No. 1 center and yet leads Leafs forwards in ice time anyway. Kadri, meanwhile, has 19 points at even strength, best on the Leafs and 14th in the league.
But OK, Carlyle can make the argument that this is Kadri's first full season in the league, and maybe he's not really and truly ready for it yet. But don't you at least try him in an offensive role where that inexperience may not hurt you? Say, the power play? Kadri checks in at 2:15 of power play time per game, nearly a full minute short of Bozak; despite that, he has six points on the man advantage to Bozak's five.
There are other issues with forward usage that extend well beyond not using Kadri enough (again, he's not using Kadri enough). For example, with the Leafs down two goals to Winnipeg the other night, Carlyle repeatedly sent Colton Orr and Frazer McLaren, who average less than seven minutes a night, over the boards in lieu of Mikhail Grabovski, another center.
James Mirtle notes that Grabovski played just five of the game's final 30 minutes, largely because he's not producing (6-5-11 in 27). But one supposes that most guys who scored 23 and 29 goals in the last two seasons, respectively, probably wouldn't produce well with Jay McClement and Nikolai Kulemin on their wings for 39 percent of their even strength shifts, and so it's difficult to put all that on Grabovski.
Is that lack of production the reason he's averaging 16 minutes a night over the last three games, all of which the Leafs lost?
Said Carlyle, "You make the call."
And just in case you thought maybe Carlyle just can't figure out how centers work, don't worry. He's awful with defense too.
People have been crucifying Dion Phaneuf all season, because he's a minus-8 and his Corsi numbers look particularly ugly. The reason for this is fairly straightforward though: Carlyle is burying him. Phaneuf, as the team's only ultra-reliable defenseman, is being relied upon perhaps too much, starting just 39.2 percent of his shifts through 26 games in the offensive zone. He's also playing on the left side of the ice most nights, which, if you know anything about Phaneuf, is not the side he's supposed to be on. Plus, his most regular partners are Korbinian Holzer, who's a sub-replacement defenseman, and Mike Kostka, who's not all that much better.
Again, Carlyle admittedly doesn't have too many options to help take the load off Phaneuf at the NHL level. Gunnarsson is a strong player and still somewhat underused at just 21:27, but you can't have the only two very good defensemen on your NHL team playing together when you consider how bad the other options outside Cody Franson are (and they're real bad).
So what do you do when you have two very good defensemen, one pretty good one, and three bad ones on your NHL team? You sure as hell don't call up the highly-regarded kid who's currently playing very well for the AHL team across town.
A lot was made of the Free Jake Gardiner movement earlier this week, and perhaps justifiably given how dumb it was for his agent to put that on Twitter, but the fact of the matter is that continuing to burden Phaneuf with an absolute stiff like Korbinian Holzer doesn't make a lot of sense when Gardiner is wasting away in a league that's frankly beneath him (he has 31 points in 41 games, 10th in the AHL behind a bunch of guys who have closer to 40 or more, and also Justin Schultz who hilariously still leads the league). Not that Carlyle sees it that way.
"Jake had an opportunity here. He played two games for our hockey club, and we felt he was nowhere near where he needed to be," the coach said when asked about what he thought of the Twitter kerfuffle.
Hey, two games. That's a lot of time to evaluate someone, right?
For example, Leafs fans have seen Holzer and Kotska for more than 20 games each at this point and long ago determined they're terrible. But what about an opinion on Gardiner from someone who sees him a little more often?
Well it's funny you ask, because when Dallas Eakins, who coaches Gardiner in the AHL, was recently quizzed about whether the defenseman is NHL-ready. And he said, "Absolutely." So there's that to consider as well.
It will be interesting to see what the Leafs do in the next week or two, because that in turn will dictate whether they're going to be actual buyers at the deadline for the first time in what feels like forever.
Knowing the way this team is run, if that happens, it'll give Carlyle a whole new crop of useful veterans to favor over his younger, better players, and the Leafs can safely live down to their expectations once again.
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