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Carlyle looks for better things from Maple Leafs

by Mike Brophy

The Toronto Maple Leafs will be different; there's no doubt about that. The question is whether they will be better.

One year after they threw a scare into the Boston Bruins by taking them to seven games in the opening round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Maple Leafs took a nosedive. Toronto lost its final four games of the 2013-14 season and 13 of its last 18, tumbling to 12th in the Eastern Conference and missing the postseason for the eighth time in nine seasons.

Changes were in order. Brendan Shanahan was hired as team president and wasted little time putting his stamp on the new-look Maple Leafs.

It started behind the bench; coach Randy Carlyle got a two-year contract extension, but assistant coaches Scott Gordon, Dave Farrish and Greg Cronin were released. The changes spread to the front office with the firing of vice president of hockey operations Dave Poulin and VP and assistant general manager Claude Loiselle.

Shanahan went in a different direction, replacing Poulin and Loiselle with Kyle Dubas, the baby-faced 28-year-old former GM of the Ontario Hockey League's Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds who leans heavily on analytics in making personnel decisions.

Then there is the roster. The Maple Leafs added experience and grit in the likes of defensemen Stephane Robidas and Roman Polak along with forwards Daniel Winnik and Mike Santorelli. David Booth was signed in hopes he can rediscover his scoring touch and replace the goals lost when Mason Raymond signed as an unrestricted free agent with the Calgary Flames. Hard-hitting Leo Komarov, who left the Maple Leafs to play last season in the KHL, was signed and emerging right wing Matt Frattin, who was traded by Toronto to Los Angeles (and later to Columbus), was reacquired.

They will replace defenseman Carl Gunnarsson, Paul Ranger and Tim Gleason and forwards Raymond, Nikolai Kulemin, Jay McClement and Dave Bolland, all of whom left town.

The big question for the Maple Leafs is whether they have the leadership required to be successful. There is no Mark Messier or Bobby Clarke on the Maple Leafs. No young stud like Jonathan Toews, for that matter.

In other words, there is not one player who can legitimately command instant respect of his teammates based on commitment and past experience … and winning.

Carlyle doesn't see that as a problem.

"The leadership we are looking for has got to be 10 deep on our club; it can't just be one or two guys," he said Monday at a charity golf tournament in Milton, Ontario. "It can't always be the same two guys receiving the same amount of pressure and answering the same questions in the difficult times and good times. That's one of the things every strong club has, a large leadership group."

Defenseman Dion Phaneuf has been Maple Leafs captain since June 2010, but there seems to be a divide among fans regarding his effectiveness in the role. Phil Kessel is the team's perennial leading goal-scorer, but his public shyness suggests he's not the type who would stand up and make an effective "Let's win one for the Gipper" speech behind closed doors. Veteran left wing Joffrey Lupul is a dependable scorer, but injuries have kept him out of the lineup too often for him to make an impact in the leadership department even though he is an effective spokesman for the players.

However, Lupul believes the team is not lacking leadership.

"In a sense, everyone is a leader," Lupul said. "For some guys it doesn't come as naturally as other guys, but it is coming to work and doing the things you need to do day in and day out, and that's what we're trying to build here; the fact that everyone can be a leader in their own way."

Carlyle said at the end of last season that he wished he had been more demanding of his players and that he'll expect more this season.

"We have asked is for our players to compete at a higher level and our expectations are some of the new people will compete for jobs and that is a healthy environment for our group," Carlyle said.

Carlyle often bristles at the suggested divide between the team's top six (scorers) and bottom six (checkers) forwards. That has not changed.

"In reality we would like to create a top-nine forward group," Carlyle said. "We think we have enough depth that people can challenge, and if we could create three balanced scoring lines it would be an advantage to us."

As for the hiring of Dubas, Carlyle insisted his team has already moved in the direction of analytics.

"There is all this craze about analytics and to say we haven't used analytics would be crazy," Carlyle insisted. "We have done some things the past couple years that were quite different from what other clubs were doing. They are a tool and we would be foolish to come here and say we're going to ignore the tools that are made available to you."

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