Toronto Maple Leafs: 5 Players Who Will Thrive Under Randy Carlyle
Well folks, it hasn’t been a success yet, has it?
The Toronto Maple Leafs have only won one of three games in the new Randy Carlyle era, that win coming against the last-place Montreal Canadiens. It also rained yesterday in Toronto, which is fitting considering the probable mood of Leaf Nation right now.
Leaf fans have two choices right now: either slip back into the depressive coma that’s been haunting this franchise for over 40 years, or try to look at the positives.
Frankly, both choices are completely understandable, but since utter doom and gloom won’t sell Internet advertisements let’s keep it sunny, shall we?
Over the last three games, we’ve seen many of the same bone-headed decisions and shaky goal-tending that got the Leafs in their current position. We’ve also seen more fighting and gritty play, as well as some decent spurts of goal-tending.
It’s become very clear that Ron Wilson and Randy Carlyle have very different coaching styles. The players will need some time to adapt to the new system.
Here are five players who will not merely adapt, but will thrive under Carlyle.
Mike Brown originally had this spot until going down with an injury last night, but a strong case can be made that Matt Frattin deserves a mention as well.
After all, the young forward had a great game against Montreal this past Saturday skating with Mikhail Grabovski and Clarke MacArthur, picking up a goal and an assist in the process.
Carlyle has shown faith in the kid, increasing his average ice time over the last three games to 16:20 after only getting 12:29 over his first 40 games.
Carlyle favours a hard forecheck, which Frattin can deliver. If he continues to play aggressively, he’ll continue to get more ice time and should see a spike in his point total over the final 15 games of the season.
Nikolai Kulemin has certainly regressed offensively this year, there’s no doubt it.
After potting 30 goals last year, it looked like he had turned the corner and would turn into a dependable sniper for the Leafs.
Unfortunately, it looks like his point total for this season will mirror his first two NHL seasons when he got 31 points in 2008-2009 and 36 points in 2009-2010. He’s also on pace to score only nine goals for the year, a career worst.
However, although he’s been snake bitten this year, he’s still playing well defensively and can still move the puck. When you’re struggling like he is, continuing to make that effort is the right move. Even if he never regains his scoring touch, he can still turn into the Leafs’ version of Sami Pahlsson.
That’ll keep him in Carlyle’s good books for sure.
Fresh off the signing of a shiny new $27.5 million contract for five years, Mikhail Grabovski is still playing as well as he did before his big payday.
What’ll make Grabbo especially beloved by Carlyle is his quick foot speed, attention to backchecking and passion for the game.
It’ll be interesting, though, to see how Grabovski will respond to a higher level of responsibility that comes with being the second highest paid player on the team.
He’s had a few minor incidents in the past, getting into a bar fight in Vancouver and feuding with the Kostitsyn brothers, and it’s possible that intensified media pressure could negatively affect his on-ice performance.
But for now he’s made a great first impression with the coach, picking up five points in the last three games. So long as his line keeps putting in the effort, they’ll get every opportunity to lead this team.
You can criticize Leafs GM Brian Burke for keeping former head coach Ron Wilson behind the bench as long as he did or for not making any significant upgrades at this year’s deadline, but he’s right about one thing: Jake Gardiner is a keeper.
While many of the Leafs have looked disinterested, jittery or exhausted at times during this horrible slump, Gardiner has played like a well-established NHL veteran.
He now looks like one of the most energetic Leafs on the ice after sitting out a few games in January. Perhaps the rest did him well.
He hasn’t quite yet gained the ability to completely dominate a game, but his tendency to keep puck possession and make smart decisions (as well as his ability to bail out Luke Schenn from time to time) has improved in his rookie year.
It’s virtually certain that Carlyle will make Gardiner a big part of his plans next year—he’s big, has a quick shot, plays a physical game and has the dangles and dekes to effectively move the puck forward. He’ll thrive because of the level head that sits upon his shoulders.
James Reimer/Jonas Gustavsson
Watching the Maple Leafs goaltending over the past 15 games has been a form of cruel and unusual punishment.
But here’s why there’s hope: Carlyle is very protective of his goaltenders, shielding them from controversy by taking questions regarding their performance and deflecting criticism in order to keep their focus on the task at hand.
In addition, to the chagrin of fantasy hockey managers everywhere, you never know who’s starting a game for Carlyle until right before game time. He keeps things quiet.
It’s a different style from Wilson, who hasn’t shied away from subtly taking jabs at his keepers on occasion.
Gustavsson has looked better recently than Reimer, but both goalies are suffering from some serious confidence issues. Carlyle’s coaching style will help them to gradually get their games back on track, even though we might not see hard results until next season.
Considering that this season is slowly slipping away, that’s a hard-to-swallow positive, but a positive nonetheless.
Anthony Antonacci is a freelance journalist and published author from Toronto, Ontario. He has been a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report since November 2011 and enjoys talking sports as much as he enjoys writing about them. If you’ve got something to say, be sure to leave a comment below or follow him on Twitter to join in the conversation.