Randy Carlyle

Under Pressure: Randy Carlyle

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“If you’re worried about optics in this market, it’s going to be a disaster. I think you have to make a decision based on what you think is the best decision for the organization, and this in our minds was clearly the best option.

“He was a guy we believe can get the job done for us. Whether optics are that it’s the wrong thing to do or not doesn’t really matter to us. If you’re looking at trying to please people, you’re probably going to make some poor decisions.”

That was Toronto GM Dave Nonis this past May, talking about the decision to extend head coach Randy Carlyle. The move came under heavy fire as the optics of retaining Carlyle, who presided over a Leafs team that went 2-12-0 down the stretch and collapsed out of playoff contention, left many scratching their heads. Several other coaches that whiffed on the playoffs met their demise — John Tortorella, Adam Oates and Barry Trotz, to name a few — and Nonis made it clear there was some issue at the coaching level by turfing all three of Toronto’s assistants.

Yet when the dust settled, Carlyle remained. One of the few constants in an offseason filled with change.

The Leafs really shifted course this summer. They hired a new president, Brendan Shanahan, then emerged as progressive club on the advanced analytics front — first, with the hiring of 28-year-old assistant GM Kyle Dubas, known as a fancy stat advocate with OHL Sault Ste. Marie; then, with the creation of an advanced numbers department, spearheaded by the guy that used to run Extra Skater.

Change happened on the ice, too.

Gone, it seems, are the day of trotting out truculent bottom-six forwards like Colton Orr and Frazer McLaren. Toronto had itself a Moneyball-esque summer, signing (slightly) flawed veterans on the cheap in the hope of striking gold — guys like former 30-goal scorer David Booth (signed for $1.1M after getting bought out of a disastrous situation in Vancouver), skilled center Mike Santorelli (inked for $1.5M after last season was cut short by season-ending shoulder surgery) and power forward Daniel Winnik (who fell out of favor in Anaheim, remained unsigned ’til August, then came to Toronto for $1.3M). These additions, along with Finnish forwards Petri Kontiola and Leo Komarov, should give Toronto the most depth it’s had up front in the Carlyle era.

As such, the pressure is on.

By keeping Carlyle after last year’s collapse, the message was loud and clear — this was on the players, not the coach. But from that point forward, the challenge was put on everybody to achieve more, coaches included. Expectations have been heightened and there is a demand for improvement — for example, Toronto could have a wildly competitive training camp, as there are 15 forwards on NHL contracts fighting for 12 spots.

All of this, of course, comes back to Carlyle, who has now been given tools to succeed: new players, new assistants and a new, fresh look at the managerial level. If that pressure wasn’t obvious enough, Nonis ensured it in May by saying his coach needs to get through to this group.

“If you’ve seen it being done before with most of the same players, or a lot of the same players, and with that coach leading that group, I know it can happen,” said Nonis. “I know it has happened with this group before. I know that (Carlyle) has reached them before, reached them at times this year.

“For me it’s not that we’re guessing whether or not he can have success or he can get through to them. We’ve seen it. I know that it’s there and we feel he is the guy that can get through to this group.”

Pre-game reading: Laine better than Matthews?

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— Up top, Bob McKenzie talks NHL and the Olympics. The Board of Governors is meeting today in Palm Beach, but don’t expect any decision until January.

— TSN’s Gary Lawless believes Patrik Laine will end up being better than Auston Matthews. “Laine is the rarest of talents. Scoring goals is the most difficult thing to do in the NHL and he is well ahead of just about every player in the world right now at the age of 18.” Yep, it’s basically Alex Ovechkin versus Sidney Crosby all over again. One’s a winger, the other’s a center. The prevailing hockey wisdom says the center is more valuable, because a center can make more of an impact at both ends of the ice. And, of course, Crosby’s backers can say he’s won two Stanley Cups. But Ovechkin has scored 537 goals in just 864 games, and that’s incredible in this day and age. We’ll have to wait and see who wins a Cup first between Laine and Matthews, assuming one wins one at all. Connor McDavid will probably have something to say as well. (TSN)

— Here’s Dallas Stars GM Jim Nill on why some NHL owners are reluctant to send players to the Olympics: “February is one of our biggest months and it’s hard to shut down for three weeks. First of all, you are shutting down your business. Period. And there is the risk of injuries and everything that goes with it. So it’s a tough situation. And the other part of it is, we’re not competing against the NFL at that time. We’re not competing against baseball at that time. It’s really just us and the NBA. So it’s really kind of our time. February, it’s hockey time in these types of markets.” (Postmedia)

— Another impassioned plea to change the NHL’s points system and award three points for a win. “A three-point regulation win gives coaches and teams much greater incentive to win in regulation, and discourages teams sitting back in the third period of close games playing just to guarantee their point and hope for two in the extra frame. This would immediately improve the 60-minute NHL product, especially in the third period of tied and close games.” We couldn’t agree more, but the league has shown no appetite for such a change, so don’t hold your breath waiting for it. (Metro)

Matt Duchene remembers former Avalanche teammate Marek Svatos, who died last month of a drug overdose. “Svats, I hope people don’t judge him on that because he was an outstanding guy. He had a tough go — a lot of injuries, a lot of surgeries. As an athlete, it’s hard to not be a little depressed at times. For him, the amount he went through, it’s sad and all I can do is send my condolences to his family and hopefully they can stay strong. We’re all praying for them.” (Denver Post)

— Sean McIndoe has a list of 10 lies all hockey fans tell themselves. We particularly enjoyed Lie No. 5: “Our prospect pipeline is stacked.” Because general managers are guilty of this too. The way the NHL is set up, it’s basically impossible to have zero prospects. Writes McIndoe: “Every team has prospects. Some of those, by definition, will even be the team’s best prospects. But it doesn’t mean they’re any good. And just pointing out that they exist doesn’t mean the future is bright.” (Sportsnet)

Enjoy the games!

Price, Weber will be key to Canadiens’ survival without Galchenyuk, Desharnais

MONTREAL, QC - NOVEMBER 08:  Shea Weber #6 of the Montreal Canadiens congratulates Carey Price #31 for their victory over the Boston Bruins during the NHL game at the Bell Centre on November 8, 2016 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.  The Montreal Canadiens defeated the Boston Bruins 3-2.  (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)
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The Montreal Canadiens were already starting to wobble. With just four wins in their last 11 games, now the Habs will be forced to play without centers Alex Galchenyuk and David Desharnais for the next six to eight weeks.

It’s a heck of a challenge for any team, let alone one that endured a horrendous collapse last season when Carey Price was lost to injury.

Galchenyuk is the big loss now. The 22-year-old is Montreal’s leading scorer with 23 points (9G, 14A). He’d developed great chemistry with Alex Radulov, who is likely to skate now with Tomas Plekanec on the first line.

To be sure, the Habs still have Max Pacioretty, Shea Weber, Brendan Gallagher, Paul Byron, and Andrew Shaw to provide scoring. Shaw can also play center. So can Phillip Danault, the 23-year-old who came to Montreal in February in a trade with Chicago.

But above all, they’ll need Price to be Price. The best goalie in the world (sorry, Bruce Boudreau), Price can keep the Habs in any and all games, even ones where they’re outshot badly.

Given the standings, the Canadiens just need to survive this next month or two without a full-on collapse. They’ve already built a nice playoff cushion. They don’t have to worry if they lose a couple here and there, which they’re bound to do given their situation.

This is also where Weber’s leadership will be tested. GM Marc Bergevin traded away a pretty popular player to get Weber, whom he called a “tremendous leader,” as well as a “complete and reliable defenseman.” Bergevin made that move for times like these, when the heat in that hockey-mad market goes way up.

Montreal starts a four-game home stand tonight against New Jersey. Looking ahead on the schedule, there’s a six-game road trip after Christmas, with stops in Tampa Bay, Florida, Pittsburgh, Nashville, Dallas and Toronto.

If they can survive that trip, they can survive anything.

It should be fascinating to watch them try.

Goalie nods: Oilers give Gustavsson shot at cooling off Flyers

EDMONTON, AB - OCTOBER 12:  Goalie Jonas Gustavsson #50 of the Edmonton Oilers warms up before the home opener against the Calgary Flames on October 12, 2016 at Rogers Place in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Codie McLachlan/Getty Images)
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With six straight wins, Philly is one of the NHL’s hottest teams — and tonight, the Flyers will look to make it seven as Edmonton and backup goalie Jonas Gustavsson come to town.

Gustavsson hasn’t been used much this season, but has fared well when called upon. He made 31 saves in a 2-1 OT loss to the Wild this past Sunday and, on the year, has posted a 2.00 GAA and .923 save percentage.

Of course, those numbers have come in a small sample size. The Monster has just five appearances this season, and only three of them were starts.

Now, he’ll be thrown into arguably his biggest test of the year at Wells Fargo. The Flyers are rolling, Steve Mason has been lights out and the team continues to get terrific production from Wayne Simmonds, who has four goals in his last two games (and 15 total on the year, to lead the club).

Of note, tonight is the first of a back-to-back for the Oilers — they play in Minnesota tomorrow — so Gustavsson goes in Philly, while regular No. 1 Cam Talbot faces the Wild on Friday.

Elsewhere…

Calvin Pickard gets his first start since Nov. 29 when the Avs take on the B’s in Boston. No word yet on a Bruins starter.

— The red-hot Jake Allen, who has won his last eight starts, will be in for the Blues. The Isles will counter with Thomas Greiss, who draws in after Jaroslav Halak performed well over the last three contests.

Roberto Luongo has lost three of his last four, despite posting a stellar .928 save percentage over that span. He’ll be in for the Panthers tonight as they host Pittsburgh. Matt Murray is in goal for the Pens.

Ryan Miller‘s back in goal for Vancouver, after Jacob Markstrom got last game in New Jersey. Miller will face Ben Bishop, who gets the nod for the host Lightning.

— Marquee matchup in Montreal, as Cory Schneider and the Devils take on Carey Price and the Habs.

Henrik Lundqvist gets a night off after starting four straight, as Antti Raanta will face the Jets. Winnipeg is likely to go with Michael Hutchinson, who occupied the starter’s net at practice this morning.

Pekka Rinne will look to beat the Stars for the second time this season. Dallas has yet to name a starter.

— To nobody’s surprise, Chad Johnson will be back in goal when the Flames take on the Coyotes in Arizona. Johnson has won seven of his last eight. For the Coyotes, Mike Smith is in goal.

Jeff Zatkoff, who made 25 saves in a win his last time out, looks to be the Kings starter. No word yet from the ‘Canes, but Cam Ward was in for last night’s 6-5 shootout loss to Anaheim.

Draisaitl’s growth raises questions for Oilers

EDMONTON, AB - NOVEMBER 29:  Leon Draisaitl #29 of the Edmonton Oilers faces off against Auston Matthews #34 of the Toronto Maple Leafs on November 29, 2016 at Rogers Place in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Codie McLachlan/Getty Images)
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It’s easy to forget about Leon Draisaitl.

Mostly because he’s not Connor McDavid, and that’s who everyone thinks of when they think of the present-day Edmonton Oilers.

They also think about the other first overall draft picks: Taylor Hall, Nail Yakupov and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, only the latter of whom is still with the team.

But back to Draisaitl — imagine if (insert your favorite team) had a 21-year-old forward with 11 goals and 11 assists in 28 games. You’d be pretty excited about that guy, right?

That’s the season Draisaitl’s currently enjoying. The third overall draft pick in 2014 (yeah, it’s about time the Oilers started to win), he’s scored four goals in his last four games — and no, he doesn’t always get to play with McDavid.

But the two youngsters have looked good together on special teams, and there have been times when coach Todd McLellan has decided to load up the top line.

“Leon has no trouble playing the wing. He’s done it before,” McLellan said, per the Edmonton Journal. “Sometimes you have a little security there too because Connor and Leon both understand how to play low in the D-zone and the first guy back can assume that position. You also have two centers who can take face-offs as long as you’re not exposed on other lines.”

Long term, the Oilers would probably like Draisaitl to center his own line. Where he ends up may depend on what they do with Nugent-Hopkins, the 23-year-old center who heard his name plenty in trade rumors as the Oilers tried to shore up their blue line over the summer.

Though scoring isn’t a huge problem for the Oilers, they could still use an offensive defenseman to help the power play. So far this season, they’ve been making do with Oscar Klefbom and Andrej Sekera, but adding a real specialist could take their power play from good to great.

The Oilers may also need to shed some salary at some point. It’s nothing urgent right now, but Draisaitl is a pending restricted free agent and McDavid’s entry-level deal ends after the 2017-18 season. You can imagine what the captain’s second contract might look like.

Remember that Edmonton GM Peter Chiarelli has never shied away from making trades, and that June’s expansion draft could be preceded by a number of deals.

Yes, Chiarelli would have to think long and hard about trading an all-situations player like Nugent-Hopkins, but depending on the return, it might be something he’d consider.

Related: With McDavid and RNH, where does Draisaitl fit for Oilers?