Randy Carlyle sells himself way short in terms of the impact he makes on a team as its coach.
He may not want to take credit for the fact the Toronto Maple Leafs
were one of the NHL's toughest teams a year ago and certainly the league's busiest fighting team, but when cornered and asked what kind of a team he'll ice this season, all indications are the accent will again be on physical play.
"I'd like to see a team that is going to be a strong forechecking team," Carlyle said. "We're a skating team and we have to skate, but we have to do some things that allow us to skate. We have to execute to a higher level than we did in the pre-season in terms of puck recoveries and transition from our defensive zone through the neutral ice to allow us to get in and be a skating team."
Toughness is a trademark of a Carlyle-coached hockey team. The Maple Leafs led the NHL in fighting majors with 44 last season, 10 more than the second-place Columbus Blue Jackets, and with 14 fighting majors in this year's pre-season, Toronto ranked second to Washington, which had 18.
With veteran defenceman John-Michael Liles
having been put on waivers
for the purpose of sending him to the minors in a cost-cutting move, the Maple Leafs now do not have a defenceman who stands under six feet.
Asked if size matters, Carlyle said indeed it does.
"I think in some situations it helps and it does matter." he said. "If you look at a lot of teams in the league there are a lot of big players playing the game now. That's the biggest difference from days gone by; the big man is now playing in the NHL. ... If everything was equal would you take a small one or a big one? If all things were equal I would take the bigger player."
Here is a look at how the Maple Leafs shape up heading into Tuesday night's season opener against the Canadiens in Montreal (CBC, CBCSports.ca, 7 p.m. ET):GOALTENDING
The addition of Jonathan Bernier
from the Los Angeles Kings gives the Maple Leafs a potentially strong tandem between the pipes. Bernier, the 11th overall pick in 2006, had a 9-3-1 record with the Kings last season, 1.88 goals-against average and .922 save percentage. Bernier's arrival has pushed incumbent James Reimer to take his game to the next level and Reimer played quite well in the pre-season. Reimer seemed to be the Maple Leafs goalie of the future, but a concussion and neck injury stalled his progress. A weak glove hand has been his downfall.DEFENCE
The Maple Leafs like to tell the world they have nine NHL calibre defencemen, but that is open to debate. Because they were slightly over the salary cap, veteran John-Michael Liles was sent to the minors. Now they're down to eight. Korbinian Holzer, who did little during the pre-season, also passed through waivers and was sent to the American Hockey League's Toronto Marlies. Teenager Morgan Rielly, 19, made the team out of training camp, but he could still be sent back to junior. Now we're down to seven.
The good news is the Leafs have a solid top four in Dion Phaneuf, Carl Gunnarsson, Jake Gardiner and Cody Franson. And if Paul Ranger can find his NHL legs after a year in the minors preceded by a three-year retirement, he could challenge to play in the top four. Mark Fraser rounds out the defence and provides toughness.
Phaneuf, Franson and Gardiner are all capable of adding significant offence from the blue-line.FORWARDS
Some will argue the Maple Leafs still lack a bona fide No. 1 centre and it will be that way until they trade for one or Frederik Gauthier, 18, develops. That may be true, but centre is not a position of weakness. Tyler Bozak is a solid two-way player who has chemistry with sniper Phil Kessel while Nazem Kadri had a breakthrough season last year with 44 points in 48 games. Two-time Stanley Cup champ David Bolland
brings a good two-way game and a little sandpaper to the table while Jay McClement is a good checker and penalty-killer.
With Kadri, Kessel, Joffrey Lupul, James van Riemsdyk, Bozak, David Clarkson (suspended the first 10 games) and Nikolai Kulemin, the Maple Leafs have two lines that can light it up.
McClement, Colton Orr, Carter Ashton, Bolland and Frazer McLaren give the Maple Leafs added size and toughness on the third and fourth lines.INTANGIBLES
Franson wound up signing a one-year contract
just before the pre-season ended and will now try to duplicate the breakout season he enjoyed last season and parlay it into a long-term, big money deal. Kessel, a top-10 scorer in the NHL the past two years, and Phaneuf are also in contract year and many players in that situation use it as motivation to put up big numbers.A COACH'S JOB
"What you try to do is work with your group; try to recognize the strengths of your group and build on those," said Leafs coach Randy Carlyle. "If we have some deficiencies, which every team does, you try to improve on those. From a coach's perspective we feel better about our team than we did this time last year."EARNING A SPOT
Right-winger Carter Ashton has played himself onto the Maple Leafs roster.
"The guy has earned the opportunity; it's pretty simple," Carlyle said. "The guy has come out and worked hard and played the game at a pace that he separated himself in our eyes with his work ethic and commitment to being on the forecheck. Carter Ashton has come in and made enough of an impression that he is going to play [Tuesday] in Montreal."
Ashton played last season with the AHL Marlies and the year before had a 15-game stint with the Maple Leafs during which he was pointless and minus-10. His dad, Brent, played 998 NHL games with a host of teams.
"I still have to prove myself every day so not much has changed," the younger Ashton said.
Ashton's chances of making the team were enhanced after he slashed McLaren in practice, breaking the tough guy's finger, during training camp.RIELLY WATCH
Nineteen-year-old Morgan Rielly will start the season with the Maple Leafs, but how long he lasts remains to be seen.
"Obviously we feel strongly that Morgan is a young kid that has shown strong potential and has played well in training camp," Carlyle said. "There are a lot of positive taking place with this young player; we just have to measure if it's going to be productive for both him and our hockey club to play in the NHL this year."
Carlyle then added: "It's not easy to play defence in the NHL and it's extremely difficult to play defence at 19 years old. But he separates himself with some of his skill set."ABOUT THE HABS
Carlyle knows his Maple Leafs will be in for a tough season opener in Montreal.
"Montreal is a transition team and if you turn the puck over you're going to be playing in your own zone all night,| Carlyle said. "They rely specifically on their skill set and their speed through the neutral zone and if we turn the puck over it's going to be a long night.
"They've got a well-rounded lineup, speed and a world class goaltender in Carey Price. They went out and added more competitiveness to their mix and they have a tough guy in George Parros
as well as a big, rugged defenceman in Douglas Murray. They are a club that took a giant step last year. They were picked to be a non-playoff team and they climbed all the way to second so you have to take your hat off to them."
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