The Maple Leafs coach wants his players to be in shape and skate hard the whole shift. He wants two-forward forechecks with the third guy poised around the blue line in wait. He wants more effort than ex-coach Ron Wilson ever demanded on the defensive side of the rubber.
“The new term in hockey is, ‘Taking the goaltender’s eyes away,’” explained the coach.
The task requires neither a can of pepper spray nor provocative gyrations from a goal-side dance troupe. It is, in some ways, as simple as standing in front of the opposing net — which, if you know anything about the matter, isn’t quite as sedentary as it sounds. When Tomas Holmstrom, the league’s acknowledged dean of net-front distraction, recently retired from the NHL after 15 seasons with the Detroit Red Wings, he took with him the scars of countless stitches and the memory of nine or 10 lost teeth.
Holmstrom, who dedicated his career to screening goaltenders and tipping pucks, was an aficionado of minimizing bruising. He used to wear extra padding on the back of his legs and the small of his back to protect from the slashes and crosschecks that were his occupational hazard. And as for the 100-m.p.h. slapshots that rang by his ears nightly — for those he was aware there was no protection but his wits. Still, Holmstrom went to the rocking chair having suffered a whopper of a concussion when his head took the brunt of a shot from teammate Steve Yzerman a decade ago or so.
“(The front of the net) can be a war zone at times,” Carlyle acknowledged on Tuesday.
The question, of course, is in some ways the question of the Maple Leafs’ season. Who among a roster built for Wilson’s defence-be-damned gunslinging is built to execute Carlyle’s brand of sacrifice and grind?
On a squad stacked with forwards whose natural instinct is to prance about the perimeter, who are the most likely candidates to endure punishment to command goaltender-obscuring space?
Joffrey Lupul is already a proven practitioner of the top-of-the-crease craft. Certainly Leo Komarov will be expected to follow the assistant captain’s example without much prodding. Ditto the likes of Mike Brown. But on Tuesday, it appeared Carlyle’s chief goal was to publicly prod another Maple Leaf to action. Welcome to the hot lights, James van Riemsdyk.
Carlyle, just to be clear, isn’t asking his players to stand “around” the net. He’s talking about standing in front of it — between the posts, where the blue ice meets white.
“It’s not an easy job,” said Tyler Bozak, the Leafs centreman. “There’s defencemen hitting you at the same time, boxing you out. There’s a shot flying at you. I mean, it’s hard to stand in there. I don’t know. But you’ve got to take away the goalie’s eyes nowadays. The goalies are too good. If they see the puck, they’re usually going to stop it.”
“I don’t think it’s a natural talent that Holmstrom possesses,” Carlyle said a few years back. “I think it’s because of his work, of practise, practise, practise and continually staying with that, tipping pucks in front of the net.”
With that in mind, Carlyle has tried to turn past players on to the charms of war-zone tours. Dustin Penner, the 6-foot-4 forward for the Anaheim Ducks, was among Carlyle’s favoured targets for the conversion. Penner once told reporters that he always considered himself “a half-boards guy”— meaning, more of a perimeter player. Carlyle begged to differ. Acrimony ensued.
In other words, van Riemsdyk had better keep working on those net-front tip drills or get comfortable on the bench. This is not a suggestion; it’s an order. When the coach was pressed about how he might turn various forwards into blue-and-white versions of Holmstrom, he didn’t reply with talk of a give-and-take negotiation. He didn’t want to discuss the pros and cons of his brainstorm.
“They have to. They have to,” Carlyle said. “That’s part of the plan we lay out for them. It’s expected.”
With Carlyle, it’s simple and it’s not. His players will cause havoc for opposing goalies or they won’t. The results will be in plain view a few feet in front of the goal line Wednesday night in Pittsburgh.