"You never like to be critical after a win, but..."
That is pretty much how Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle handled questions from the media following games in which the team was outplayed yet somehow managed a victory, thanks to an abundance of scoring and solid goaltending on many nights early in the 2013-14 season.
Yes, indeed, the Maple Leafs were 10-4 out of the gate, but their poor defensive play and lack of commitment to detail was concerning. Good defence wins in the NHL. Right from the get-go, the Maple Leafs were weak in their own zone.
Weak. And soft.
Last year, when the Maple Leafs made the playoffs for the first time in eight seasons, they were considered a very tough team to play against. Unbelievably, they led the NHL in fighting majors this season with 47, but there is a huge difference between fighting and playing tough.
In the end, goaltending cost them a chance to advance to the second round last season, but Toronto addressed that issue last summer when Jonathan Bernier was acquired from the Los Angeles Kings.
There were other significant additions, too, that were supposed to lead to the Maple Leafs to not only making the playoffs again, but also challenging for the Eastern Conference title. Centre David Bolland, a two-time Stanley Cup champion with the Chicago Blackhawks, was acquired as was gritty right-winger David Clarkson. They brought with them experience and a biting edge. Swift left-winger Mason Raymond was signed for the bargain basement price of $1 million and, after a year with the AHL Marlies, veteran defenceman Paul Ranger was back in the NHL after retiring prematurely from the Tampa Bay Lightning.
When the team got off to a good start, it was all giggles and smiles in Leafland. Even well into the New Year, things looked pretty rosy and it appeared a second straight trip to the playoffs was imminent.
But Carlyle knew it was all a house of cards.
He never backed off his demand that the players tighten up defensively and he knew if they did not display a greater commitment to being better in the defensive zone, success would not continue. Only the woeful Edmonton Oilers turned the puck over more often than the Maple Leafs.
Carlyle harped and moaned about Toronto's poor play in its own zone and yet nothing he said caused his players to change the way they played. There was no improvement. Time and time again, the maple Leafs turned the puck over to the opposition. An organized breakout simply did not exist.
It wasn't only the team's play in the defensive zone that led to failure. This year's edition of the Maple Leafs seemed to want every goal to be of highlight-reel quality. That led to overpassing, which led to missed scoring opportunities. Yes, there were some nifty passing plays that led to beautiful goals, but in the NHL, there are no additional points for artistic impression. The Maple Leafs never quite got that.
When Bernier was injured late in the season, it was game over. For as hard as backup James Reimer tried - and heaven knows he worked hard - he was unable to cover up for the mistakes of his teammates. His inability to catch the puck and poor rebound control made things worse.
Maple Leafs general manager Dave Nonis is to be credited for being aggressive in the changes he made last summer and during the season. Sure, he overpaid for Clarkson ($36.75 million over seven years), but had the 30-year-old Toronto native come close to playing the way he did the past few seasons in New Jersey, nobody would have complained. He didn't come close.
After serving a 10-game suspension to kick off the season, Clarkson never found his game. Down the stretch, he goaded a few opponents into fights in an effort to spark the team, but ultimately, scoring five goals and 11 points in 57 games with a minus-14 rating is not acceptable.
Bolland, who scored the Stanley Cup-winning goal for Chicago last season, got off to wonderful start with six goals and 10 points in 14 games, but on Nov. 2, suffered a severed tendon in his ankle. He returned to the lineup on March 22, but though he has given it his all, he hasn't been the same player. He probably came back too early.
Nonis has some tough decisions to make this summer. Up front, Bolland, Raymond, Nikolai Kulemin, Jay McClement and Troy Bodie are all unrestricted restricted agents, as is defenceman Ranger. Bolland may be willing to take a bit of a haircut in salary to stay local, but if a team like the Florida Panthers offer him a significant bump, it will be "Sayonara."
McClement is a valuable defensive player and shouldn't be too hard to sign, while the same goes for Kulemin, although he made $2.8 million this season and the Maple Leafs might ask him to sign for less. If that happens, Florida and the Pittsburgh Penguins will likely be all over him. Ranger is a project worth continuing to pursue. Same with Bodie. Raymond will command a huge raise, which the Maple Leafs are not likely to extend to him.
Franson second in hits
Restricted free agents include defencemen Cody Franson and Jake Gardiner as well as Reimer. Franson is second in the NHL in hits, but can you recall one bone-crunching check he delivered? The hits do not outweigh his many giveaways.
It would be shocking to see the Maple Leafs offer Reimer a new deal. He believes he can still be a No. 1 goalie in the NHL, despite being 38th in the league in save percentage (.908) and 48th in goals-against average (3.37).
It wasn't all bad this season. Teenage defenceman Morgan Rielly made the team and gave good indication he will be a star in the NHL very soon. Left-winger James van Riemsdyk took his game to the next level. And leading scorer Phil Kessel, once and for all, silenced any doubters of the deal that brought him to Toronto.
Also, Tyler Bozak proved he can handle the No. 1 centre job. He might not be the ideal top-line pivot, but he works well with van Riemsdyk and Kessel.
That said, left-winger Joffrey Lupul and centre Nazem Kadri had disappointing seasons. Not awful, just disappointing.
Phaneuf at crossroads
Dion Phaneuf, meantime, is at a crossroads in Toronto. On one hand, the captain signed a seven-year contract extension that kicks in next season. On the other hand, he turns to puck over too often, has struggled mightily down the stretch when his team needed him most and he is not popular with the fans.
Recently, after a particularly horrible game, he did not meet with the media and later admitted it was a mistake and apologized. Then, last Saturday, when the Maple Leafs were embarrassingly outplayed by the Winnipeg Jets, he disagreed with reporters and claimed his team matched the effort of the visitors. That, too, was a mistake that did not go over well.
What the Maple Leafs need more than anything is leadership. They need a player who, when the team is drifting away from the game plan, makes his teammates accountable.
In the end, the Maple Leafs do not need a major overhaul, but a new direction is required. When the players do not respond to the coach's demands, one or the other must change. Toronto needs a coach that commands attention or players that buy into Carlyle's program.
Follow Mike Brophy on Twitter @HockeyBroph
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