What Toronto Maple Leafs Coach Randy Carlyle Should Wish for This Christmas
The Toronto Maple Leafs and their coach Randy Carlyle are likely going to relish an opportunity to have a respite during the brief NHL break this week. The Leafs play on December 23 and not again until December 27.
With a number of injuries to key players, and the team struggling to find some consistency, a break might help to cure some of what ails the up-and-down Leafs.
There have been bright spots this season.
The Leafs goaltending duo has been very good for most of the season, captain Dion Phaneuf has been great in logging a lot of tough minutes and the play from some promising young Leafs like Peter Holland and Morgan Rielly should have fans excited about the future.
But what we want to look at are the top items on Randy Carlyle's Christmas wish list as the team heads into 2014 and what the Leafs hope is a successful run to the playoffs.
Wish 1: An End to the Injury Bug
All teams face injury problems in one form or another over a gruelling NHL season. The Leafs have not been spared here as several Leafs have missed significant portions of the 2013-14 season.
Joffrey Lupul, James van Riemsdyk, Tyler Bozak and, in particular, David Bolland have missed time. Bozak and Bolland have missed the most games with no real timetable for Bolland's return from his Achilles injury.
The impacts from injury are not created equally, and given the relative youth of Toronto's roster, losing veterans like Bozak and Bolland, particularly at the centre-ice position, has been debilitating.
While 10 teams have lost more man games to injury than the Leafs, not many squads have had two of their top three centres out for extended periods this season. Bolland was fitting in very nicely following his trade from Chicago.
Given the lack of organizational depth at the position, Carlyle's wish list would have to be topped by having his key veteran centres making a healthy return as soon as possible.
Wish 2: Instant Aging for His Young Defencemen
Carlyle is a former Norris Trophy winner as the league's top defenceman. He knows how the position needs to be played at the highest levels—he's done it.
He also understands that it is exceedingly rare for young defenders to have overnight success at the NHL level, especially as part of a relatively young group.
Cody Franson, Rielly and Jake Gardiner are all comparatively young rearguards while Carl Gunnarsson, Mark Fraser and Phaneuf are now just entering their prime years. No one in the latter group is over 28 years of age.
In a perfect world, Carlyle could accelerate the development of the three youngest in the group, but they are going to have to continue to learn on the fly. Growing pains are sure to continue.
Wish 3: Leafs' Attack to Be Sustained for Entire Games
When the Leafs have been at their best, they have been very good. They have a good combination of size, speed and skill when they are completely healthy.
The main issue is that this has not been sustained from game to game, and on many nights, they've rarely played more than a period of attacking hockey.
A healthy team would certainly help in this regard, but the Leafs' team commitment to defence also has to be much better. The forwards have to play well in their own end and support their young defence by being better positionally.
The Leafs are a fast team with forwards that are exceptional in the transition game. That skating ability should translate to them being a good defensive group as well.
It's not glamorous, but playing good defence is a necessary component of winning hockey in this age of parity.
Wish 4: Phil Kessel to Be a Difference-Maker Every Night
Phil Kessel is unquestionably one of the best wingers in the NHL. He has all-world speed, and he can make defenders look foolish with his ability to dangle at top speed.
Kessel is once again in the top 10 in goal scoring in the league. His skill is undeniable. What Carlyle needs is for Kessel to put this team on his shoulders in those tight games when it needs him most.
He's by no means a lazy player, but Kessel has to take that next step to where he takes over a game. He can will the Leafs to wins.
He is good enough that he can do that almost completely on his own given his speed, puck skill and shooting ability.
Kessel will be a key member of the U.S. Olympic team in Sochi. This role on the world stage might help to complete this ongoing process for one of the game's more talented players.