Jonus Siegel’s recent article for TSN outlined that the Toronto Maple Leafs’ leadership is struggling to figure out what is wrong with a team that has, as Siegel points out, just five regulation wins in its last 30 games.
What stands out to me, in both the article and the Leaf’s beleaguered play, is not the team’s inconsistency but it’s overly aggressive play.
Consistency is a problem, yes, but part of the reason the Leafs are unable to find an identity and string together a series of strong performances is the message the team is receiving from Head Coach Randy Carlyle. Sure, the Leafs’ identity is centered around aggressive and physical play but the team’s inability to reign it in to spare their team the inconvenience of NHL disciplinary action has cost them the most man games lost to suspensions than any other NHL team.
Including the preseason, the Leafs have lost 22 man games to suspensions. What makes this stat so compelling is that the Leafs aren’t being penalized for borderline hits by fringe players. The Leafs are losing valuable players during difficult stretches which have cost them not only victories but reliable leadership as well.
Talented center Nazem Kadri was lucky to get only three games for what was termed “goaltender interference” on Minnesota Wild goaltender Niklas Backstrom but was actually a deliberate hit to the head. And worse, it was Kadri’s second questionable incident of the game. Kadri received a minor penalty on the play but the suspension was all the more careless because the team was relying on him to replace injured top-line center Tyler Bozak.
Toronto also lost Captain Dion Phaneuf for two games for boarding Bruins’ defenseman Kevan Miller. The Leafs lost both games, tough games against the LA Kings and St. Louis Blues, without their number one defenseman.
While Phaneuf was serving the second half of his two game suspension, power forward David Clarkson carelessly laid his shoulder into St. Louis Blues forward Vladimir Sobotka’s head. The play resulted in another two game suspension for the team’s most physical forward after the Leafs had won just two in ten games.
Most recently, another indispensable Leaf forward, Joffrey Lupul, was fined $10,000 for a cross-check to the head of Detroit Red Wings forward Patrick Eaves during the Winter Classic. Luckily for Lupul, the incident did not result in a suspension, though it should have.
After Lupul’s fine was announced, the media questioned Carlyle about Toronto’s growing propensity towards suspensions. Carlyle defensively iterated that Leafs management was not ‘preaching that type of hitting': “We’re preaching play hard and do whatever you have to do to defend our team, but we’re not preaching suspendable offences,” Said Carlyle.
Hard to believe that’s true, considering none of the players mentioned above have ever been suspended before in their, for the most part, lengthy careers. Something changed this season. Something more than a player suddenly becoming more aggressive than in the past. And in light of the team’s first playoff appearance since 2004 last season, it seems Carlyle is going full-throttle at any cost in an attempt to get back there.
Carlyle would argue that the suspensions are simply growing pains as the league tries to figure out how to protect its players by reinterpreting penalties and becoming more cautious where head shots are involved. The trouble is, considering that notorious heavy hitters like the Boston Bruins and Philadelphia Flyers have just one suspension between them this season (albeit the most egregious offense of the season on Boston’s Shawn Thornton), it seems the Leafs are the only team suffering from such pains.
It’s possible the team’s lack of identity is contributing to these careless plays as players don’t understand the game plan or their role within that plan, but if Carlyle is going to state “I just think we’ve got to get a lot more aggressive,” in the wake of a steady stream of disciplinary hearings and punishable offenses, even if he means with the puck, chances are his message will continue to be misconstrued, if not taken to its full extent, as players try to impress their combative coach to gain ice time.
If that’s the case, then we can expect suspensions to continue to go hand in hand with the team’s identity as it moves into the second half of the NHL season.