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Leafs Ready To Try New Approach At Success

by Staff Writer / Toronto Maple Leafs


The changes the Toronto Maple Leafs made in their front office, on their bench, and to their roster during the offseason made for interesting storylines and allowed for some fascinating discussion about the new way the team will go about its business on the ice and off it.

However, with the conversation now focused on putting those changes, including Toronto's obvious emphasis on analytics, to the test, old news is still hard to ignore.

The Maple Leafs have a new leader in president Brendan Shanahan, who made changes underneath general manager Dave Nonis and coach Randy Carlyle by appointing each new assistants, all because of how poorly last season ended.

The team crumbled at the end, losing 12 of its final 14 games in regulation, including eight in a row at one point. The Maple Leafs were second in the Atlantic Division with 80 points on March 16; they finished sixth with 84 points.

Last season's collapse came on the heels of the Maple Leafs' brutal ending to the 2012-13 season, when they reached the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time in nine years only to bow out in the first round because they blew a 4-1 third-period lead against the Boston Bruins in Game 7.

"I think there is one thing that makes people forget about all those things; it's called winning," Toronto coach Randy Carlyle said. "Simple. When you win, all those things go away."

To win more this season, Carlyle knows the Maple Leafs have to do a better job of possessing the puck and protecting it in the offensive zone to take some pressure off of goalies Jonathan Bernier and James Reimer.

That's where the expertise of new assistant general manager Kyle Dubas could come into play.

Dubas is known mostly for his work with analytics, for crunching the numbers most commonly associated with shot-based advanced stats such as Corsi and Fenwick, each a proxy for puck possession.

The Maple Leafs allowed a League-high 35.9 shots on goal per game last season. Their minus-8 shot-differential per game was tied with the Buffalo Sabres for the worst in the NHL. They were last in the League in Corsi (42.8 percent Corsi-for) and Fenwick (42.2-percent Fenwick-for), according to progressivehockey.com.

"In the beginning we felt we weren't playing great as a team, but we were winning and we'll all take the wins," Carlyle said, "but when the crunch came we weren't able to get this team to play at a higher level."

Getting the Maple Leafs to do that this season is the task of Carlyle and his new assistant coaches, Peter Horachek and Steve Spott. Shanahan didn't allow Carlyle to retain his previous assistants, Dave Farrish, Scott Gordon and Greg Cronin.

Here is a breakdown of what they will be working with this season:

FORWARDS

Carlyle wants the Maple Leafs to have a more consistent four-line approach, but he said that starts with establishing a top-nine group of forwards that will do the bulk of the heavy lifting offensively.

He wants to eliminate the divide between the team's top-two forward lines and its bottom-two forward lines. He would like a third line to be a dangerous scoring threat and the fourth line to be able to eat up minutes and forecheck enough to keep the puck in the offensive zone.

Last season, the Maple Leafs had six forwards with 44 or more points, including Tyler Bozak, who had 49 points in 58 games, but no other forward had more than 20 points. The divide was too wide for Carlyle's liking.

"We feel we have that depth and we can play, mix and match, enough people where we can provide some form of offense on all three lines," Carlyle said.

It starts with Phil Kessel, James van Riemsdyk, Joffrey Lupul, Nazem Kadri and Bozak, but Carlyle is thinking beyond the production he trusts they will provide. He wants the Maple Leafs to be more of a cycle team than a one-and-out rush team. That was a big problem last season, and it led to Toronto allowing so many shots against per game.

Toronto's puck-possession problem eventually became its undoing. After allowing 2.98 goals per game through 68 games, the Maple Leafs allowed 3.5 goals per game in their final 14 games, when they went 2-12-0.

"We always felt we needed to change our puck possession, specifically in the offensive zone, not be a one-and-out team and not be considered a rush team, but try to create more of a cycle game, grind teams down to play with the puck more," Carlyle said. "We weren't able to do that."

Carlyle thinks Toronto's chances of doing that this season are better with the additions of Daniel Winnik, David Booth and Leo Komarov in particular. He's hoping they can play that grinding style in what could be second- and/or third-line roles.

Though Petri Kontiola was signed to play center, most likely on the third line behind Bozak and Kadri, Carlyle also said Peter Holland is an option for that spot. Mike Santorelli can play in the middle, but Carlyle said they see him on the wing.

"We have a lot of options to go with," he said.

They also have David Clarkson, who may be the biggest wild card of them all.

Clarkson hasn't earned the right to be penciled in as the second-line right wing behind Kessel, but the Maple Leafs hope he plays well enough in training camp to start the season there, particularly because his style is conducive to how Carlyle wants his forwards to play.

He had a forgettable first season in Toronto after signing a seven-year, $36.75 million contract. Clarkson was suspended for the first 10 games of the season for coming off the bench to join an altercation in a preseason game. He finished with only 11 points in 60 games.

"In all reality we're trying to hit the reset button with David Clarkson," Carlyle said. "I think he deserves a reset with our group. Last year, he started the season with the suspension and then the injuries. It really didn't give him an opportunity to get his feet underneath him."

DEFENCEMEN

Carlyle is hoping adding some experience and the continued growth of a pair of potential budding stars will make a big difference on the blue line. At the very least the Maple Leafs will have a balanced defense with three lefties (Dion Phaneuf, Jake Gardiner, Morgan Rielly) and three righties (Roman Polak, Cody Franson, Stephane Robidas) making up the top-six group.

Carlyle said Polak and Phaneuf could form a minute-munching top defense pair.

Robidas said he and the Maple Leafs are being cautious because he's coming back from a broken right leg, an injury he sustained twice last season. Robidas, though, ideally will be ready to start the season on time.

Carlyle is hoping Gardiner takes the next step to be a trusted top-four defenseman capable of playing in all situations. He was second among the team's defensemen in points (31) and ice-time per game (21:04) last season. He also led the team in Corsi-for (46.5 percent) and Fenwick-for (44.4 percent).

Compared to other top defensemen, Gardiner's Corsi and Fenwick numbers were below average. Compared to his teammates they were excellent, and who he plays with has a lot to do with the percentages.

"We think Jake is a special defenseman in the NHL with his skating ability and ability to move the puck and get around the rink," Carlyle said. "We think we have a pretty good young player that's just starting to blossom."

The Maple Leafs feel the same way about Rielly, but Carlyle feels he can't put too much on the plate of the 20-year-old, even after his promising rookie season, which featured 25 assists.

"I think if he can come back and duplicate what he did in his first year for us we would be happy with that," Carlyle said.

Depth is a concern, which is why the Maple Leafs have veterans Henrik Tallinder and Brendan Mikkelson in training camp on professional tryout contracts.

GOALTENDERS

Bernier entered camp as the No. 1 goalie with Reimer at No. 2, but for the second straight season Carlyle said he will not hesitate to switch and just go with the hot hand.

The problem is late last season they were both cold.

Toronto's swoon started with Reimer in net for the injured Bernier. He gave up 18 goals in five straight starts, all losses. Bernier didn't stop the bleeding, giving up 12 goals in three straight starts, all losses.

Bernier was in net for the bulk of the first three-quarters of the season, when Toronto was in a playoff position. He had a 2.68 goals-against average and .923 save percentage in 55 appearances, the most of his career as he spent his first three full NHL seasons as a backup to Jonathan Quick in Los Angeles.

Reimer had a 3.29 GAA and .911 save percentage in 36 appearances.

"Coming from a team in L.A., where you get 20 shots a game almost average, that's how you win," Bernier said. "You might get away [with it], but once you get to close to the playoffs and get in the playoffs, you definitely have to play better defensively. We all know we need to be better."

SUMMER MOVES

Additions: F Leo Komarov (free agent KHL), F Petri Kontiola (free agent, KHL), F Mike Santorelli (free agent, Canucks), F David Booth (free agent, Canucks), F Daniel Winnik (free agent, Ducks), F Matt Frattin (trade, Blue Jackets), D Roman Polak (trade, Blues), D Stephane Robidas (free agent, Ducks)

Subtractions: F Dave Bolland (free agent, Panthers), F Mason Raymond (free agent, Flames), F Nikolai Kulemin (free agent, Islanders), D Carl Gunnarsson (trade, Blues), F Jay McClement (free agent, Hurricanes), D Paul Ranger (free agent, Switzerland), D Tim Gleason (free agent, Hurricanes), F Jerry D'Amigo (trade, Blue Jackets)

Promotion candidates: D Petter Granberg, F Josh Leivo, D Stuart Percy, F William Nylander, D Matt Finn

PROJECTED LINEUP

FORWARDS

James van Riemsdyk - Tyler Bozak - Phil Kessel

Joffrey Lupul - Nazem Kadri - David Clarkson

Mike Santorelli - Petri Kontiola - David Booth

Daniel Winnik - Peter Holland - Leo Komarov

Colton Orr - Troy Bodie - Matt Frattin

DEFENCEMEN

Dion Phaneuf - Roman Polak

Jake Gardiner - Cody Franson

Morgan Rielly - Stephane Robidas

GOALIES

Jonathan Bernier

James Reimer

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl


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