If Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle and general manager Dave Nonis play this right, they could find themselves having their cake and eating it, too. They might squeeze their way into a playoff spot while answering a couple of seasons' worth of evaluative mysteries and even if that means being first-round road-kill it would be hard to see it as being anything short of 'mission accomplished.'
This was the week that things changed. Joffrey Lupul returned and slipped snugly into the role of the most important personality in a Leafs uniform. Given three days between games, Carlyle laid it all on the line to goalies James Reimer and Ben Scrivens: one of you, please, take the job by the throat. Enough of the alternating nonsense, the coach said.
Then Wednesday, before a 4-2 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Leafs said that Mike Komisarek agreed to waive his no-movement clause. Jake Gardiner was called up from the Toronto Marlies, Korbinian Holzer sent down, and suddenly it fit together. Dion Phaneuf back with Carl Gunnarsson after a steady diet of Mike Kostka and Holzer; Gardiner with John-Michael Liles and the surprisingly steady defence pairing of Mark Fraser and Cody Franson.
Liles and Gardiner seems a quizzical fit of too-similar players – Gardiner's suggestion post-game that it's a good pairing because "if one of us falls or something, the other's a great skater," offers some odd comfort – but in terms of components, for the first time this season there was a sense of whole to the Leafs' blueline.
When Komisarek finally screamed 'uncle!' it allowed the Leafs to send him to the AHL's Marlies after a 24-hour period, where it is expected he will be allowed to play his way into a compliance buy-out this summer. The defenceman, who hasn't been the same since he was a Montreal Canadien and injured his shoulder in a fight with Boston's Milan Lucic, still has one more year remaining on the five-year, $22.5-million (U.S.) contract he was given by Nonis's predecessor, Brian Burke. It's a not-too-subtle reminder in this season of evaluation that Burke's major shortcoming was giving out lousy contracts. Komisarek is still a $3.6-million cap-hit this season.
It was a necessary house-cleaning ahead of the NHL trade deadline. Komisarek is in some ways a tragic figure, at least in a sporting sense. He was thumped by Lucic in November of 2008, then targeted again in the playoffs. That same right shoulder would be dislocated again with the Leafs. The body failed, moreso than the spirit, and there is a sense that Komisarek never has regained the sense of comfort in his own skin.
Liles and Gardiner were conspicuously soft on the Lightning's first goal, a blueline shot by Radko Gudas, but Carlyle sure had a funny way of showing he would have no confidence in Gardiner: he gave him more minutes in the first period (8 minutes 14 seconds) than any other defenceman and through two periods his 13:47 tied him with Gunnarsson behind Phaneuf's 15:56.
"Very visible," is how Carlyle described Gardiner's game.
Gardiner played 19:20, and found the first-period flow to his liking. The best of his skills were on display when he scooted the length of the blueline to keep the puck in. The worst, according to Carlyle, was when he went to the wrong corner on a controlled breakout and "had a little 2-on-2 game" with Liles. That was visible, too.
Still, Gardiner said it was "like night and day," compared to his brief appearance with the Leafs earlier this season. "I was making better decisions, using my feet more," Gardiner said. "It was nice to get some bounces, too."
Now that Gardiner is here, the next parlour game for the chattering classes will be monitoring Carlyle's bedside manner with a player who many think can't adapt to his style. It will be a pleasant diversion from Carlyle vs. Mikhail Grabovski. But what if it all works out and Carlyle vs. Gardiner turns out to be as uneventful as Carlyle vs. Nazem Kadri. What then?