From March 2nd of last year until the end of the regular season, Leafs fans were offered a glimpse of the kind of coach Randy Carlyle would be. The results weren't pretty --the team continued the free fall that they had started under Ron Wilson-- but I don't know many people who expected the team he inherited to dramatically turn things around based on a coaching change alone.
The team Carlyle inherited was rife with question marks; atrocious penalty killing, an often porous defense, undersized forwards, and unreliable goaltending. It was always going to be a struggle for the Leafs' new bench boss.
Flash forward to September and Leafs' brass believes that they've addressed many of these issues. James Van Riemsdyk was added to the Leafs' forward group and while he may not represent a significant addition in the 'sand paper' department, he should help the cycle game. Jay McClement will look to solidify the team's penalty-kill and overall defensive play from the forward position and a now-healthy James Reimer, today's pencilled-in starting goaltender, will look to provide the Leafs with more stability in goal. Still, a lot will have to go right and it starts with coaching.
With regards to special teams, Carlyle's track record is something of a mixed bag. During his 6 full seasons in Anaheim, his teams finished with a top-5 powerplay 4 times, including the 2010-11 season which was his final full season as head coach. As far as penalty-killing goes, Carlyle's Ducks finished 13th, 5th, 12th, 23rd, 24th, and 19th in the league.
There's no doubt that as far as Anaheim's powerplay goes, they certainly had some thoroughbreds leading the charge. With players like Perry, Getzlaf, Pronger, Niedermayer, Selanne, and Ryan all playing significant roles in Carlyle's numbers during this period, one can't assume that he'll be able to replicate those results with the group Toronto has to offer. That said, it's better to see good results with good players than poor results.
The penalty-kill is the area where the Leafs had their greatest struggles under Ron Wilson. There's really nowhere to go but up at this point but Carlyle's track record in this regard doesn't exactly inspire the greatest of confidence -- as illustrated above, it's decidedly 'meh'.
As far as how Carlyle uses his forwards, he doesn't seem to mind giving his most talented offensive players tough minutes. In 2010-11, Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf, and Teemu Selanne had the third, fourth, and fifth most difficult zone starts among Anaheim forwards who played 40 or more games. These three and Bobby Ryan all faced tough opposition as well with +-QoC ranging from .011 to .034.
Under Wilson, the Leafs generally made sure that Kessel and Lupul saw favourable zone starts though last season the caliber of competition these two ran up against was even tougher than what the Ducks' stars saw in 2010-11.
Carlyle's final year in Anaheim saw a distinct icetime divide at 5-on-5 between his first, second, and third lines whereas Toronto's icetime leaders at 5-on-5 were more of a mixed bag and the leaders were considerably more tightly grouped. This may be attributed to the clearer distinction in Anaheim between their best unit and their second best unit, while Toronto's top two lines aren't as disparate talent-wise. For all the lip-service that's been paid to how many tough minutes a Carlyle team's bottom six will traditionally play, the actual icetime numbers don't seem to bear it out.
If I expect any noticeable difference with regard to how Carlyle handles this team, I would anticipate that it will come in the form of additional icetime for Mikhail Grabovski. It seems that Carlyle likes a player he can trust in all situations and guys who can start in the defensive zone while still putting up positive possession are the guys who seem to see the most ice at even strength.
As far as Carlyle being a defensive saviour is concerned, his 2010-11 Ducks allowed the 4th most shots against of any team in the league and the 2nd most the year before so I wouldn't count on much improvement in that regard. The years where Carlyle had success in limiting shots against were years where his team was anchored by Pronger or Niedermayer or both. With all due respect to Dion Phaneuf, I wouldn't anticipate similar results for this Carlyle-led group.
After looking at the numbers, I'm left with the feeling that if this year's team is going to improve upon last season's results, it will have to come as a result of developmental leaps from last year's young players and prospects, improved play by our goaltenders, and from the roster upgrades that Burke makes or has made so far this summer. Coaching, it seems, will not be our panacea.
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