Peter Horachek was inserted as Maple Leafs interim head coach on Wednesday morning. And by Wednesday night, he was running a bench a few steps down from his old pal and mentor Barry Trotz, for whom Horachek was a long-serving assistant in Nashville.
Along with a long history together, they share a challenge. They’ve both been charged with showing offensively gifted NHLers the righteous road to defensive responsibility — or, at least, to a fulfilling life as less of a defensive liability.
We’re not yet halfway through Washington’s season and Trotz is already earning plaudits for helping to transform Ovechkin into a two-way force along with spurring the Capitals, who missed the post-season last season under Adam Oates, back into a playoff contender. Ovechkin, of course, has long been an enigmatic figure, exploding and floating on an intermittent whim. Last season, when he led the league with 51 goals, he finished as a minus-35 — 884th place out of 886 ranked NHL players. If plus-minus is not a definitive stat, it certainly said something to Trotz.
Speaking for the first time in the wake of being dismissed by Leafs management, ex-coach Randy Carlyle painted a not-so-optimistic picture of the contents of the Maple Leafs dressing room. While Carlyle didn’t name names, he levelled some awfully alarming bombs into the dressing room in an interview with the Star’s Rosie DiManno.
Carlyle pointed to a culture of entitlement in Leafland, noting that the millennials that populate his roster have been raised in an environment in which failure is foreign — “it’s always about Johnny gets a trophy,” Carlyle told DiManno.
He also suggested there’s a lack of hockey sense in various portions of the room.
“Some of them can do it,” Carlyle said, “and some of them are just not capable of grasping it.”
“It’s not just the coach’s fault — it’s the guys. They have to listen. They have to understand what the coach wants from them,” Polak said. “Guys want to play. They try hard. They’re just not smart. We want to grab it on our own. We don’t want to grab it as a team.”
The lack of tight team hockey has repeatedly hurt the Maple Leafs. It’s made them chronically inept at getting the puck out of their own end. But while Carlyle explained in his last days with the Leafs that he’d been encouraging a style of breakout that relies on short passes and dilligent puck support — “playing tight as five guys,” is how Polak described it — there’ve been those who weren’t thrilled with the concept. Said Morgan Rielly last week in Minnesota: “I find it boring, yeah. But it’s good. If you’re playing boring hockey, it’s probably a good thing. . . . And if that means it’s a 2-1 game every night, then that’s great.”
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Wednesday’s loss, their 8th in 10 games, had its upside, even if the Leafs seemed to lack the kind of early-game jump you might have expected. Toronto outshot the visitors 32-26 all told. Horachek said the Leafs held the Capitals to 12 scoring chances — a far cry from a handful of recent games in which team-tracked scoring chances have been in the 20s.
Still, the Leafs, in winning the possession battle, lost where it counts. After giving up the opening goal and tying it early in the second, the Leafs gave up a short-handed goal that made it 3-1 that saw the power-play unit refrain from back-checking. And less than a minute after Trevor Smith brought them within a goal late in the second period, a blown-zone defensive lapse by Nazem Kadri gifted Marcus Johansson the time and space to beat Jonathan Bernier for his second goal of the night. Said Horachek: “We gave up some goals that were untimely and unnecessary.”
Also, they didn’t get enough. Kessel, held without a point for the third straight game, has one goal in the past three weeks. On a night he was a giveaway machine, he also manufactured five shots on goal.
What kind of feedback might Kessel hear in Thursday’s practice?
Mitch Korn, the renowned goaltending coach who worked alongside Horachek in Nashville, said Toronto’s players should expect a well-prepared, straight-ahead delivery when he’s analyzing deficiencies.
As for Kessel, the best player on one of the worst defensive lines in all of hockey, Horachek said: “I expect him to be part of the group and do what I expect.”
Whether or not that kind of straight talk will work in Toronto’s sensitive-to-the-touch dressing room is anyone’s guess. As Carlyle told DiManno, one thing he found the current Leafs roster can’t handle is constant hammering: “You’ve got to try to pick them up. It’s always about making them feel good.”
Perhaps to that end, on the night of a 6-2 loss, Horachek accentuated the sunny side.
Said the coach: “We did a lot of positive things.”